Feds ask rehearing of reputed Klansman’s acquittal

Published 1:47 pm Thursday, September 25, 2008

Prosecutors asked a federal appeals court Tuesday to reconsider the acquittal of a reputed Ku Klux Klansman who was serving a life sentence for the abductions of two black teenagers slain in 1964.

James Ford Seale, 73, was convicted in June 2007 on kidnapping and conspiracy charges related to the abduction of Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee.

The 19-year-olds were hitchhiking in southwest Mississippi when they were abducted, beaten, weighted down and thrown, possibly still alive, into a Mississippi River backwater. Prosecutors say the Klan beat and killed the teens over rumors that black residents were arming themselves for an uprising during the violent struggle for racial equality.

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Seale had served just over a year of his three life sentences when his conviction was overturned Sept. 9. A panel of three 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges ruled the statute of limitations for kidnapping had expired in the decades between the abductions and Seale’s arrest.

The U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division filed two petitions Tuesday, one asking the panel to rehear the matter and the other seeking a hearing before the full appeals court, said agency spokesman Scot Montrey.

In a highly technical legal argument, the Justice Department claims the panel overlooked an important court precedent and erroneously applied a statute of limitation.

Seale’s attorneys disagreed.

“We’re not surprised that the government asked for a review. However, we remain confident that the panel decision was correctly decided,” said Kathy Nester, Seale’s federal public defender.

The government has already asked that Seale remain behind bars until the appeals are resolved.

His attorneys say the recent acquittal left him with a clean criminal record and his failing health — he has been treated for cancer and other problems — warrants immediate release. A judge has not yet ruled on that issue.

Authorities in Mississippi are trying to determine if there’s enough evidence to charge Seale with murder if his acquittal is upheld in the federal case. There’s no statute of limitations on state murder charges.

Seale and another man, Charles Marcus Edwards, faced state murder charges in 1964, but federal prosecutors said the charges were quickly thrown out because local law enforcement officers were in collusion with the Klan.

At the time, the slayings were overshadowed by the high-profile search for three civil rights workers who disappeared in what became known as the “Mississippi Burning” case.

During Seale’s 2007 trial, a retired FBI agent testified that he was in a car with four other lawmen in 1964 when one of the agents told Seale: “We know you did it, you know you did it, and the Lord above knows you did it.”

Seale allegedly answered: “Yes. I’m not going to admit it. You have to prove it.”

Many people thought Seale was dead until 2005, when he was discovered living in the tiny town of Roxie, not far from where the teens were abducted. After the case was reopened, Edwards was promised immunity and became the government’s star witness.

Edwards testified he was with Seale when the teens were kidnapped but not when they were thrown into the river.