NEW ORLEANS – A federal appeals court overturned the conviction of a reputed Ku Klux Klan member serving three life sentences for his role in the 1964 abduction and killing of two black teenagers.
A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Tuesday that it agreed with arguments by James Ford Seale's attorney that the statute of limitations in the case had expired.
Seale was convicted in June 2007 of kidnapping and conspiracy in the abductions of Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee, both 19, who disappeared from Franklin County in Mississippi May 2, 1964. Their decomposed bodies were later pulled from the muddy waters of the Mississippi River.
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The 20-page ruling noted the alleged crimes occurred in 1964 and the indictment against Seale was issued in 2007.
"The more than 40-year delay clearly exceeded the limitations period," said Judge Harold R. DeMoss Jr., writing for the panel of judges that included W. Eugene Davis and Jerry E. Smith.
"The district court erred by failing to recognize the presumption that changes affecting statutes of limitation apply retroactively, even without explicit direction from Congress."
Defense attorney Kathy Nester had argued that a 1972 congressional act that abolished the death penalty for kidnapping, also imposed a five-year statute of limitations.
Defense attorneys "identified this statute of limitations problem as a legitimate issue early on in the case," she said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
Nester said prosecutors could ask the full appeals court to hear the case.
The decision was being reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division in Washington, D.C., said spokesman Dean Boyd.
Nester said she had not spoken with Seale and did not know when she would be able to.
Seale was convicted largely on the testimony of Charles Marcus Edwards, a confessed Klansman who, for his testimony, received immunity from prosecution for his admitted role in the abductions.
Edwards testified that he didn't participate in the killings, but Seale told him how Seale and other Klansmen bound Dee and Moore with tape, put them into a car trunk and drove them through part of eastern Louisiana to get to the area where the young men were dumped, still alive, into the river.
Seale was arrested on a state murder charge in 1964, but it was later dropped. Federal prosecutors say the state case was dropped because local law enforcement officers in 1964 were in collusion with the Klan.
Seale is serving his sentences at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. Seale was sent there so his health needs could be met, officials have said. He has cancer, bone spurs and other health problems.
Charles Moore's brother said that despite Tuesday's ruling, he still felt the truth about his brother's death had been uncovered.
"This (ruling) doesn't take one ounce away from me," said Thomas Moore, of Colorado Springs, Colo. "James Ford Seale has spent more than a year in jail. I know I have disrupted his life."
Seale's case was among many unsolved civil-rights-era crimes that state and federal prosecutors across the South have revived since the early 1990s.