JACK ELLIOTT JR.
The Associated Press
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -The U.S. Supreme Court should decide whether a reputed Ku Klux Klansman should have been tried on a kidnapping charge 43 years after two black men were abducted and slain in rural Mississippi, a federal appeals court said Thursday.
A majority of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said other Civil Rights Era cold cases could be affected by a Supreme Court ruling on whether time had run out for prosecutors to charge James Ford Seale.
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 Circuit, including an acquittal that was overturned.
The 5th Circuit wants the nation's high court to decide whether the statute of limitations on kidnapping passed in the decades between the crime and Seale's conviction.
Federal prosecutors had opposed the issue being presented to the Supreme Court.
"This is an issue of first impression and national importance," said Judge Harold R. DeMoss Jr., writing Thursday for the court's majority. He wrote that the decision willset an important precedent for deciding whether prosecutors can file charges in other Civil Rights Era crimes.
Chief Judge Edith H. Jones, joined by five other court members who dissented, said it's unlikely the Supreme Court will consider the question. Jones said there are other issues in Seale's original appeal that a 5th Circuit panel should consider.
It is unclear whether the Seale case would affect other cold cases, she wrote.
Phone messages left by The Associated Press with Seale's attorney and the U.S. Justice Department were not immediately returned.
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.
However, the appeals court did not address the statute of limitations question. Instead, the 9-9 vote meant the court upheld a Mississippi federal judge's original finding that the statute of limitations had not expired.
If the Supreme Court won't answer the question, Seale's attorneys want the 5th Circuit to rehear the case with an odd number of judges to prevent another tie. Prosecutors have opposed that request, too.
Kidnapping was a capital crime punishable by death or imprisonment under federal law when Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee disappeared. There was no statute of limitations.
In 1972, the death penalty provision was removed from the federal kidnapping law, which made a five-year statute of limitations apply. Seale's attorneys argue the limit applied retroactively to his case.
Prosecutors said 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.