James Ford Seale, 73, convicted for kidnapping last year in the deaths of two Mississippi teenagers in 1964, may soon be a free man.
His conviction on two counts of kidnapping and one count of conspiracy to commit kidnapping in the deaths of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore, was overturned Tuesday by a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. District Court of Appeals.
The panel ruled that the federal statue of limitations on kidnapping had expired.
Seale, a native of Franklin County, piloted a cropduster in Concordia Parish in the 1970s and served briefly as an officer on the Vidalia Police Department in the mid-1970s.
A federal jury in Mississippi convicted Seale last year for his involvement in the May 2, 1964, abduction and murders of two Franklin County, Miss., men — Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore.
Klansmen abducted and beat the two 19-year-old men in Mississippi, bound them with hay twine, taped their mouths shut, threw them in the trunk of a car and then transported them across the Mississippi River Bridge at Natchez/Vidalia into Louisiana. The Klansmen then weighted down the two teens, who were still alive, before throwing them into an offshoot of the Mississippi River at Parkers Landing, where they drowned.
Judge Harold DeMoss Jr., who wrote the panel's decision, said "we are mindful of the seriousness of the crimes at issue," but noted that while "the operation (of criminal statues of limitation) in some cases deprive society of its ability to prosecute criminal offenses, that is the price we pay for repose."
"It's a shocker," said Thomas Moore, whose brother, Charles Moore, was one of two victims. "It shows that the law didn't protect my brother then and now the law can't prosecute."
But Moore said the trial of Seale clearly "showed what he did. He's not out of the woods yet."
Filmmaker David Ridgen of Toronto, Canada, whose documentary "Mississippi Cold Case" about the Dee-Moore murders has been nominated for an Emmy, said Wednesday that "Thomas Moore and I did all we could do for our parts. We went to Mississippi to find the truth about a 43-year-old cold case and we found that and much more. We would do it all again in a heartbeat."
He said the "three white judges (DeMoss, W. Eugene Davis and Jerry E. Smith) were very clear in their written decision that they overturned the Seale conviction because of a statute of limitations technicality rather than the facts of the case. A mixed jury of 12 people convicted Seale of conspiracy and kidnapping and he has spent over a year and a half in a federal prison so far.
"Now his community knows the facts. And the world knows them. The truth has come out where it never would have before. And it isn't over yet, because even if the feds exhaust their efforts, then there's a chance the state may pursue murder charges against Seale where the statutes are less of an issue. We now have witnesses and a court transcript."
Janis McDonald of Syracuse University School of Law said: "The Cold Case Justice Initiative (CCJI) vows to keep fighting for the families and for what is the only course that the law can follow: prosecution of these killers"
She told The Sentinel the "Court of Appeals basically ruled that the federal kidnapping law that was in existence at the time James Ford Seale and his fellow Klan members kidnapped and drowned Henry Dee and Charles Moore permitted prosecution at any time in the future; the law was changed later on to omit the death penalty later.
"The Court has decided in what can only be labeled convoluted reasoning, that when the law omitted the death penalty it had the effect of limiting the time period of this crime to five years. The law was changed again in 1994 to return to an unlimited time period for bringing these charges, but the Court of Appeals decided that change had no effect.
"Thus the Court ruled that the statute of limitations for Seale's crime was five years and thus reversed the jury's verdict. In my opinion this is an unconscionable ruling and the CCJI will fight it in any way that we can to restore the proper statute of limitations to these crimes. In the meantime, we urge the local prosecutors to move forward on state prosecutions of murder for which there is never a statute of limitations."