Several cut from jury pool in 1964 case; one called trial a ‘waste’

Published 3:43 pm Friday, June 1, 2007

Most potential jurors in the trial of a revived Jim Crow-era case are telling a federal judge they believe they can be impartial in deciding whether a reputed Klansman helped kidnap two black teenagers who were beaten and dumped in the Mississippi River in 1964.

One 41-year-old white woman, though, said she can’t be fair. As the second day of jury selection stretched into Thursday night, she was cut from the jury pool after saying that because of her Catholic faith, she believes she can’t sit in judgment of anyone in a criminal case.

The woman also told U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate that the trial of James Ford Seale “is a waste of taxpayers’ money.”

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She was responding to Wingate’s question about whether potential jurors thought they couldn’t be fair because they don’t like the federal government. Wingate is keeping jurors’ names secret at the request of prosecutors who said some people might fear to serve in a case involving the Ku Klux Klan.

The judge asked how many thought they’d have trouble being fair to Seale. Nine raised their hands — some black, some white.

Lawyers are going through a detailed series of questions to try to choose a dozen people, and a yet-unannounced number of alternates, to decide whether Seale, now 71, took part in abducting and killing Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee, both 19.

Wingate said testimony could start Monday, but attorneys said jury selection might stretch into the middle of next week.

The jury pool went from 76 to 55 on Wednesday and was down to about 50 by Thursday night. Court resumes Friday morning.

Two black people, a man and a woman, were dismissed Thursday after saying they believe Seale is guilty and they can’t change their minds. The man said that hearing Seale’s indictment read aloud in court brought back disturbing memories of his church being bombed in McComb during the 1960s.

Seale, a former crop-duster from the tiny town of Roxie, has denied membership in the Klan. But court documents filed by prosecutors say Seale was part of the white supremacist group that terrorized people in southwest Mississippi during the turbulent 1960s.

Seale could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted of kidnapping and conspiracy in the latest of more than a dozen civil rights-era cases that have been prosecuted across the South since the early 1990s.

Seale faces potentially damaging testimony from Charles Marcus Edwards, another reputed Klansman. Seale and Edwards were charged in 1964 in the deaths of Dee and Moore. Edwards has been granted immunity, and his name was on a witness list that prosecutors read aloud in court Thursday.

The two teenagers were hitchhiking May 2, 1964, when carloads of Klansmen were chasing rumors of a possible armed insurrection by black people in the area. Dee and Moore were picked up and driven to the Homochitto National Forest, where they were beaten. They were stuffed into a trunk and driven more than 70 miles to the Mississippi River near Vicksburg, according to court records. They were then weighted down with engine parts and dumped into the Mississippi while still alive.

Their bodies were found about two months later, when authorities were conducting an intensive search for slain civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, who disappeared from central Mississippi’s Neshoba County on June 21, 1964.

The FBI was consumed by the “Mississippi Burning” investigation of the three civil rights workers, and the Dee-Moore case was turned over to local authorities, who threw out all charges against Seale and Edwards.

The Justice Department reopened an investigation in 2000. The FBI closed the case again in 2003 only to reopen it in 2005.

Charles Moore’s brother, Thomas Moore of Colorado Springs, Colo., and two of Dee’s sisters — Thelma Collins, 70, of Springfield, La.; and Mary Nell Byrd, 61, of Natchez, Miss. — have been sitting near each other in the courtroom.