Ruling in ’64 Miss. crime could affect other cases

Published 1:36 pm Friday, October 24, 2008

Federal prosecutors have identified 22 current investigations into civil rights-era crimes that could be impacted by a federal appeals court’s decision to overturn a conviction in a 1964 kidnapping case.

The Justice Department wants the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider the ruling that acquitted a reputed Klansman in the abductions of two black teenagers found slain. A three-judge panel said the statute of limitations had passed from the time the crime was committed in 1964 and James Ford Seale’s conviction in 2007.

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said Tuesday in a letter to the court that the FBI is investigating 22 cases from that era that could result in kidnapping charges. The crimes are being investigated in the judicial jurisdiction that includes Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. The letter, a response to a question by the appeals court, stated that seven of the cases are “particularly promising.”

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Like the Seale case, all 22 of the investigations focus on events that occurred before 1972, the letter said. A Mississippi law professor said the ruling could have a chilling effect on the cases.

“I think that the implication is that there are meritous kidnapping cases from the civil rights era that will go unprosecuted if this ruling stands,” said Mississippi College School of Law Professor Matt Steffey. “I think it’s likely that this would eliminate a whole category of potential prosecutions.”

The department’s letter did not give details about the investigations or say where they were taking place. It also wasn’t clear how likely criminal charges were in the investigations.

Justice Department Spokesman Scot Montrey referred questions Wednesday about the investigations to the FBI. The FBI does not generally comment on pending investigations, said Bill Carter, a bureau spokesman.

Seale, 73, had spent just over a year in prison after being convicted in June 2007 on kidnapping and conspiracy charges related to the abductions of Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee. The two teenagers were beaten, weighted down and thrown into the Mississippi River after being abducted in southwest Mississippi.

The three-judge panel overturned Seale’s conviction in September, on highly technical grounds, saying there is a statute of limitations on federal kidnapping crimes committed before changes in federal law in 1972. Seale remains in an Indiana prison while the court considers the government’s request to rehear the case.

The 5th Circuit judges asked the Justice Department last week about other similar pending or contemplated cases in its jurisdiction.

Steffey said it appears the court was trying to gauge the potential impact of its decision. The larger the potential impact of the decision, the more likely the entire 5th Circuit is to review the panel’s ruling.