Reputed Klansman convicted of kidnapping, conspiracy in 1964 killings of black teens

Published 3:17 pm Friday, June 15, 2007

A federal jury on Thursday convicted reputed Klansman James Ford Seale of kidnapping and conspiracy in the 1964 deaths of two black teenagers in southwest Mississippi.

Seale, 71, sat stone-faced as the verdict was read, and he showed no emotion as marshals led him out.

Several relatives of the victims dabbed tears from their eyes. Among them was Thelma Collins of Springfield, La., older sister of victim Henry Hezekiah Dee.

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“I thank the Lord that we got justice,” Collins said outside the courthouse.

Seale had pleaded not guilty to charges related to the deaths of Dee and Charles Eddie Moore. The 19-year-olds disappeared from Franklin County on May 2, 1964, and their bodies were found later in the Mississippi River.

Federal prosecutors indicted Seale in January almost 43 years after the slayings. When he is sentenced Aug. 24, he faces life in prison on the two counts of kidnapping and one count of conspiracy.

Thomas Moore, the older brother of Charles Eddie Moore, said outside the courthouse that he believes justice was done.

“We’ve come a long way, baby,” said Thomas Moore, 63, of Colorado Springs, Colo.

Thomas Moore has not lived in Mississippi since he entered the Army in 1964, weeks before his brother disappeared. For nearly two years, he pushed prosecutors to reopen the long-ignored case.

“I now feel that Mississippi is my home,” said Moore, a Vietnam veteran who spent 30 years in the military. “Mississippi, you came a long way and I’m so proud the jury spoke.”

Seale was taken back to a county jail north of Jackson, where he has been held since he was arrested. A half dozen of his relatives, including his wife, ran out of the courthouse to a waiting Lexus sport utility vehicle, bumping some reporters in the scramble.

Public defender Kathy Nester said: “Obviously, we’re very disappointed in the jury’s verdict and we certainly plan to appeal.”

The jury of eight whites and four blacks took two hours to reach the unanimous verdicts.

“I’m certainly proud for the families,” said U.S. Attorney Dunn Lampton, adding that he did not share others’ concerns that the majority white jury would fail to reach a guilty verdict. “These folks did the right thing. Mississippi has made great strides.”

The prosecution’s star witness was Charles Marcus Edwards, a confessed Klansman. During closing arguments Thursday, prosecutors acknowledged they made “a deal with the devil” but said that offering immunity to a Edwards to get his testimony against Seale was the only way to get justice.

Edwards testified that he and Seale belonged to the same Klan chapter, or “klavern,” that was led by Seale’s father. Seale has denied he belonged to the Klan.

Edwards testified that Dee and Moore were stuffed, alive, into the trunk of Seale’s Volkswagen and driven to a farm. They were later tied up and driven across the Mississippi River into Louisiana, Edwards said, and Seale told him that Dee and Moore were attached to heavy weights and dumped alive into the river.

“Those two 19-year-old kids had to have been absolutely terrified,” Lampton told jurors, who sat quietly.

In its closing arguments, the defense asserted that Seale should be acquitted because the case was based on the word of an “admitted liar.”

“This case all comes down to the word of one man, an admitted liar, a man out to save his own skin,” Nester said. “A case based on his word is no case at all.”

In the final part of closing arguments, federal prosecutor Paige Fitzgerald rebutted Nester’s claims that Edwards could not be trusted. Fitzgerald also suggested that Seale’s own words incriminated him.

“Let me tell you about one man’s word. ‘Yes. But I’m not going to admit it. You’re going to have to prove it,’” Fitzgerald said, repeating a statement that a retired FBI agent testified he heard Seale make after being arrested on a state murder charge in 1964. That charge was later dropped.

The defense claimed that the prosecution failed to prove key elements needed for conviction and didn’t establish that Seale had crossed state lines while committing a crime, which is vital because that’s what gives the federal government jurisdiction.

Lampton described for the jury how Dee and Moore were hitchhiking, stopped by Klansmen and taken to a forest where they were beaten. Klansmen were trying to find out if blacks were bringing firearms into Franklin County, Lampton said.

“Henry Dee and Charles Moore didn’t know … why they had been singled out and brought back in the forest,” Lampton said.