Ex-Cop Pleads Not Guilty In 1964 Murders

James Ford Seale, a 71-year-old reputed Ku Klux Klansman, is escorted into the federal courthouse by marshals in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, Jan. 25, 2007. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
AP Photo
A reputed Ku Klux Klansman and former sheriff's deputy pleaded not guilty Thursday to kidnapping charges in the deaths of two black hitchhikers, four decades after their decomposed remains were found in the Mississippi River.

James Ford Seale, 71, was one of two white suspects initially arrested in 1964, but the FBI — consumed by a search for three civil rights workers — turned the case over to local authorities. A justice of the peace promptly threw out all charges.

Seale was arrested again Wednesday, seven years after the Justice Department reopened the investigation into the deaths of teenagers Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee. He was charged with two counts of kidnapping and one count of conspiracy to commit kidnapping.

At his arraignment, Seale was shackled at the ankles and wrists and wore an orange jail jumpsuit, white socks and mismatched flip-flop sandals — one orange, the other yellow — as he appeared before U.S. Magistrate Linda R. Anderson.

Anderson asked Seale if he understood the charges, which carry sentences of up to life in prison.

"Yes, ma'am, I think so," Seale said in a calm voice.

Seale — previously believed to be dead — will spend several days in the Madison County jail outside Jackson. A bond hearing is set for Monday. His court-appointed public defenders say he has cancer.

The indictment alleges that Klansmen took Moore and Dee, both 19, to the Homochitto National Forest in southwestern Mississippi. Seale held a sawed-off shotgun on the men while other Klan members beat them with switches and tree branches, it said.

The teenagers were still alive when they were weighted down and dumped into the Mississippi River, the indictment said.

The second suspect, church deacon and reputed KKK member Charles Marcus Edwards, now 72, was not charged. U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales declined to explain why or to say whether Edwards had agreed to testify against Seale. Sources close to the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity have said Edwards was cooperating with authorities.

"Forty years ago, the system failed," said FBI Director Robert Mueller, who joined Gonzales and siblings of the victims at a news conference in Washington. "We in the FBI have a responsibility to investigate these cold case, civil rights-era murders where evidence still exists to bring both closure and justice to these cases that for many, remain unhealed wounds to this day."

Even with all the FBI investigative material and an alleged confession by Seale, Mississippi never filed charges in the brutal slayings. The district attorney at the time claimed he did not have enough evidence to prosecute the case, CBS News reported.

The case against Seale may not have been possible without the enterprising work of a local reporter for a local newspaper, the Clarion-Ledger, reports CBS News correspondent Randall Pinkston.

Jerry Mitchell managed to find FBI files presumed to have been lost — files that are now key to the government's case.

"What motivates me is the injustice, and these cases are injustice at their height, because not only did these guys get away with murder in some of these cases, but everybody knew they were getting away with murder," said Mitchell.

The break in the 43-year-old case was also the result of the dogged efforts of Moore's older brother, who appeared at the Washington news conference.

Red-eyed but strong-voiced, Thomas Moore, of Colorado Springs, Colo., said the case proved that cases of the civil rights era can still be solved.

"There can be justice — even 42 years later," he said.

Thelma Collins, Dee's sister, told the gathering that she won't be satisfied until the case is concluded. She said cried when she heard about Seale's arrest.

"I thank the Lord that I got to see it," Collins said. "At my age — I'm 70 years old — I did get to see something good come of it."

But, Collins added, "It's not enough."

The arrest marked the latest attempt by prosecutors in the South to close the books on crimes from the civil rights era that went unpunished. In recent years, authorities in Mississippi and Alabama won convictions in the 1963 assassination of NAACP activist Medgar Evers; the 1963 Birmingham, Ala., church bombing that killed four black girls; and the 1964 Philadelphia, Miss., slayings of the three civil rights workers — the case that led to the discovery of Moore's and Dee's bodies.

Seale and Edwards are suspected of kidnapping the pair May 2, 1964, in a Klan crackdown prompted by rumors that black Muslims were planning an armed "insurrection" in rural Franklin County.

For years, Seale's family told reporters that he had died. But in 2005, Thomas Moore and a Canadian documentary filmmaker, David Ridgen, found Seale living a few miles from where the kidnapping took place.

According to FBI interrogators, Edwards admitted he and Seale took the two into the woods for a whipping. Edwards said both men were alive when he left them.

An informant told the FBI that Seale's brother and another Klansman took the unconscious men to the river, lashed their bodies to an engine block and some old railroad tracks, and dumped them from a boat. The other Klansmen and the informant have since died.

The remains of Dee and Moore were discovered two months later near Tallulah, La., during a search of the eastern Louisiana swamps for three civil rights workers who had disappeared from Philadelphia, Miss. The bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were found in Mississippi a short time later.