A federal appeals court Tuesday overturned the 2007 kidnapping conviction of James Ford Seale in connection with the deaths of two black teenagers in Mississippi in 1964.
The Justice Department brought an indictment against Seale based on evidence uncovered by a Mississippi newspaper and a documentary film team. He was sentenced to three life terms in 2007, but the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans said the statute of limitations had expired.
NPR news analyst Juan Williams, who has written extensively about the period known as the "Freedom Summer," tells host Renee Montagne the prosecution and the conviction are the "most important part of the story" after all these years.
Overturned On A Technicality
"For so long, there was a tragic history of negligence by federal and local law enforcement when it came to investigating the deaths of black people in Mississippi during the '60s," Williams says. "And in this case — the murder of these two 19-year-olds, Charles Moore and Henry Dee — you have a not very high-profile case. In fact, their bodies were found only because officials were looking for three missing civil rights workers in a case that had drawn national attention."
Since the 1980s, law enforcement officials have succeeded in getting about two dozen convictions in what were previously considered low-profile cold cases like this one, Williams says.
"So it was important that the case went forward, and it's just frustrating to see it overturned on a technicality," he says.
Case Dismissed After First Arrest
Seale had been arrested based on tips from informants right after the teenagers' bodies were found, but the case was dismissed in an effort to get better evidence to win a grand jury indictment and a real conviction for murder. But KKK members stonewalled local officials and even congressional committees by claiming their Fifth Amendment right, Williams says.
Prosecutors needed somebody to talk, and finally — just a few years ago — they got an elderly KKK member to tell them the story in exchange for immunity, Williams says. That came with the help of documentary filmmakers, reporters from the Jackson Free Press and relatives of the murdered men.
"Seale had kidnapped the two young men, taken them into a forest near Natchez, beaten them bloody, put them in the back of a car and then driven them to a river and drowned them alive because of suspicion they were part of a plan for militant blacks to come down to Mississippi and launch an offensive against the Klan," he says.
Seale never was charged with murder, just kidnapping.
Testimony From Secretive Society
On Tuesday night, a U.S. attorney involved in the case told a Jackson newspaper he was aware all along that the statute of limitations was going to be a problem.
Prosecutors argued that the passage of time was necessary for them to get evidence and testimony that was previously unavailable from the KKK, a very secret society, Williams says. But the appeals court disagreed.