WASHINGTON — The US Supreme Court has declined to decide whether the federal statute of limitations bars the prosecution of a former Ku Klux Klan (KKK) member accused of kidnapping and murdering two black teens in 1964.
James Ford Seale was tried, convicted, and sentenced to three life prison terms in 2007. His lawyers challenged the prosecution on grounds that a five-year statute of limitations for kidnapping had long since passed.
By declining to take up the case, the high court’s action leaves in place a decision by Mr. Seale’s trial judge allowing his prosecution to go forward and upholding his conviction and life sentences. But the issue remains unresolved in future cases.
The statute of limitations issue is significant because it could undermine efforts by the Justice Department to prosecute suspects in as many as 22 other alleged racially-motivated killings and civil rights crimes dating to the 1950s and 1960s.
Justices John Paul Stevens and Antonin Scalia issued a statement saying the high court should have agreed to resolve the issue now. “The question is narrow, debatable, and important,” Justice Stevens wrote. “I see no benefit and significant cost to postponing the question’s resolution. A prompt answer from this court will expedite the termination of this litigation and determine whether other similar cases may be prosecuted,” he wrote.
A 40-year-old case
The statute of limitations issue arose during the federal prosecution of Seale, a former Klan member from Mississippi suspected of kidnap and murder.
Seale was identified by federal agents forty-five years ago as the primary suspect in the teens’ deaths. The agents turned their findings over to local law enforcement officials in Mississippi, but no state charges were ever filed.
In 2007, federal prosecutors resurrected the cold case, indicting Seale on federal kidnapping charges.
The two victims, Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee, were abducted by members of the KKK on May 2, 1964 while hitchhiking near Meadville, Miss. They were taken to a remote location and beaten.
Then Seale and others allegedly taped their mouths and hands, and tied their bodies to a steel engine block before dumping both teens, still alive, into the Mississippi River.
They were reportedly first targeted for abduction because the KKK suspected Mr. Dees of engaging in civil rights work.
The issue of limitations
Lawyers for Seale challenged his indictment, arguing that a five-year federal statute of limitations on kidnapping had long since run out.
Prosecutors countered that there was no statute of limitation for a kidnapping that resulted in a death.
The trial judge agreed with that view, but a three-judge appeals court panel in New Orleans reversed the conviction. The full Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals then took up the case and split 9-9 on the question.
That action reinstated Seale’s conviction and life sentences. But the appeals court took the somewhat unusual step of asking the US Supreme Court to resolve the underlying question of whether the five-year statute of limitations applied in the Seale case.
The central question in the case was whether a 1972 amendment by Congress designating kidnapping a non-capital offense retroactively reduced the statute of limitations to five years for a crime committed in 1964.
Seale’s lawyers acknowledge that kidnapping was a capital offense in 1964 and thus had no statute of limitations under federal law. But they argue that the law changed in 1968 and 1972 with action by the Supreme Court and Congress.
In a dissent to the decision of the full Fifth Circuit to take up the Seale case, Judge Jerry Smith blamed the Justice Department for delaying more than 40 years in prosecuting Seale for this “despicable crime.”
“The government now asks this court to bail it out by declaring a result that cannot be reached except by a strained explication of the applicable statutes and caselaw,” he wrote. “The result of the government’s inaction under myriad attorneys general is, to say the least, unfortunate. Because, as the [appeals court] panel held, Seale’s conviction is barred by the statute of limitations, Seale must be set free and cannot be successfully prosecuted for this unspeakable crime.”
Judge Smith said: “It is a necessary consequence of having a government of laws that wrongdoers at times must be released without further punishment.”