Feds say Supreme Court shouldn’t decide cold case

Published 2:49 am Sunday, June 21, 2009

The U.S. Supreme Court should not get involved in the case of a reputed Ku Klux Klansman convicted of kidnapping 43 years after two black men were abducted and slain in rural Mississippi, federal prosecutors argue.

James Ford Seale, now 73, was convicted in 2007 of abducting two 19-year-old friends who authorities said were beaten, weighted down and thrown, possibly still alive, into a Mississippi River backwater in 1964.

Since the conviction, Seale’s case has worked its way through the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, including an acquittal that was soon overturned.

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The question is whether the statute of limitations passed in the decades between the crime and Seale’s conviction. Seale’s attorneys want the 5th Circuit to send the case to U.S. Supreme Court to decide. Federal prosecutors argued against that in documents posted Friday on the 5th Circuit Web site.

Seale’s attorney declined comment Friday.

Seale was serving three life sentences in the case when the conviction was thrown out last year by a 5th Circuit three-judge panel. The full 5th Circuit overturned the panel’s decision in a tie vote June 5.

The appeals court did not address the statute of limitations question. Instead, the 9-9 vote meant the court affirmed a Mississippi federal judge’s original finding that the statute of limitations had not passed.

Seale’s attorneys last week asked the 5th Circuit to send the case to the Supreme Court for “certification” — a procedure in which an appeals court can ask the Supreme Court to decide on an issue.

Prosecutors argue that only the appeals court can request certification, not a party in a case.

It’s an “extraordinary procedure that is rarely invoked,” prosecutors argued in court papers. “The Supreme Court has accepted certification from the courts of appeals only three times in the last 60 years, and only once in the last 30 years.”

If the Supreme Court won’t hear the issue, Seale’s attorneys want the 5th Circuit to rehear the case with an odd number of judges to prevent another tie. Prosecutors opposed that request, too.

“Mr. Seale is facing three life sentences for a conviction that nine sitting judges have agreed was an unlawful prosecution,” his attorneys had argued in court documents. “Injustice will result if Mr. Seale is allowed to remain in jail for the remainder of his life on what is effectively a split decision on a pivotal question of law.”

At the time Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee disappeared, kidnapping was a capital crime punishable by death or imprisonment under federal law. There was no statute of limitations.

In 1972, the federal kidnapping law was rewritten to remove the death penalty provision, which made a five-year statute of limitations apply. Seale’s attorneys argue the limit applied retroactively to his case.

Prosecutors say Seale was with a group of Klansmen when they abducted Moore and Dee in southwest Mississippi. They took the teens into the woods and beat and interrogated them about rumors that blacks in the area were planning an armed uprising, prosecutors said.

The teens’ remains were found in July 1964 when federal authorities searched for the bodies of three civil rights workers who had also disappeared that summer. That case became known as “Mississippi Burning” and overshadowed the deaths of Dee and Moore.

Seale and another man, Charles Marcus Edwards, briefly faced state murder charges in the deaths of Dee and Moore. Prosecutors say the charges were dropped because local law enforcement officers were in collusion with the Klan.

Many people thought Seale was dead until 2005, when he was discovered living in a town not far from where the teens were abducted and the case was reopened.