Klansman’s conviction upheld in 1964 kidnappings

Published 11:49 pm Saturday, June 6, 2009

A reputed Ku Klux Klansman will remain in prison after a federal appeals court’s split ruling wiped out his acquittal in the kidnappings of two black teenagers who were slain in 1964.

James Ford Seale, 73, was found guilty in June 2007 of abducting the teens who authorities said were beaten, weighted down and thrown, possibly still alive, into a Mississippi River backwater in May 1964.

Seale was serving three life sentences in the kidnappings of Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee when the conviction was thrown out last year by a panel of three 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges. The panel’s decision was overturned Friday by the entire court in an evenly divided vote.

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The three-judge panel acquitted Seale of the charges in September based on the argument that the statute of limitation had expired between the time of the kidnappings and Seale’s indictment nearly 43 years later. Seale remained behind bars while the government challenged that decision.

The full 5th Circuit did not comment on the specifics of the statute of limitations issue in its two-page ruling, and the tie vote means the court affirmed the trial judge’s original finding that the statute of limitations had not passed. It sent the case back to the panel for consideration of other issues raised on appeal.

The development is significant not only because it will keep Seale behind bars, but that federal prosecutors will continue to have kidnapping charges as an option in current investigations into civil rights crimes of the 1960s.

At the time the two 19-year-olds disappeared, kidnapping was a capital crime punishable by death or imprisonment under federal law, with no statute of limitations. However, 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 had argued the five-year limit applied retroactively to his case.

Kathy Nester, a federal public defender who represents Seale, declined to comment.

Thomas Moore, the 65-year-old brother of Charles Moore, said he was elated over the ruling.

“As I’ve said before, there was no doubt that Seale was guilty … so I’m glad that the 5th Circuit took a second shot at it with the whole panel,” Thomas Moore said. “They visualized that other cold cases could be effected by the three-judge panel’s ruling.”

Prosecutors say Seale, a former crop duster, was with a group of Klansmen in 1964 when they abducted Moore and Dee from a rural stretch of highway in southwest Mississippi. The Klansmen 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 decomposed bodies were found in July 1964 as 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 in 1964, but the charges were quickly thrown out. 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 a town not far from where the teens were abducted. The case was reopened, and Edwards became the government’s star witness after he was promised immunity from prosecution.