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Ruling may help unlock answers to notorious 1946 "Moore's Ford" lynchings

Atlanta -- A historian who has spent years looking into the unsolved lynching of two black couples in rural Georgia more than 70 years ago hopes some answers may finally be within his grasp.

A federal appeals court on Monday upheld a lower court ruling to unseal the transcripts of the grand jury proceedings that followed a months-long investigation into the killings.

Roger and Dorothy Malcom and George and Mae Murray Dorsey were riding in a car that was stopped by a white mob at Moore's Ford Bridge, overlooking the Apalachee River, in July 1946. They were pulled from the car and shot multiple times along the banks of the river.

Amid a national outcry over the slayings, President Truman sent the FBI to rural Walton County, just over 50 miles east of Atlanta. Agents investigated for months and identified dozens of possible suspects, but a grand jury convened in December 1946 failed to indict anyone.

Anthony Pitch, who wrote a 2016 book on the lynching - "The Last Lynching: How a Gruesome Mass Murder Rocked a Small Georgia Town" - has sought access to the grand jury proceedings, hoping they would shed some light on what happened.

Unsolved Mass Lynching Georgia
February 2018 file photo shows a bridge that spans the Apalachee River at Moore's Ford Road where, in 1946, two young black couples were stopped by a white mob who dragged them to the riverbank and shot them multiple times in Monroe, Ga. David Goldman / AP

A federal judge in 2017 granted Pitch's request to unseal the records, but lawyers with the U.S. Department of Justice appealed, arguing grand jury proceedings are secret and should remain sealed. A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday ruled 2-1 to uphold the lower court's order.

"I think it's just enormous," Pitch said by phone after the 11th Circuit ruling was published.

His lawyer, Joe Bell, said he was "absolutely delighted."

"I believe our case was on the correct side of history, and I believe the court felt that way as well," Bell said by phone, later adding, "Perhaps now the truth of this unfortunate, gruesome act will be finally unearthed and displayed to the world."

The Department of Justice declined to comment on the 11th Circuit ruling.

Rules governing grand jury secrecy allow for exceptions, and binding 11th Circuit precedent says courts may go beyond those exceptions and order the disclosure of grand jury records in "exceptional circumstances." The exceptional historical significance of this case meets that bar, the majority opinion says.

Roger Malcom, 24, had been jailed after stabbing and gravely injuring a white man, Barnett Hester, during an argument. Witnesses told authorities Malcom suspected Hester was sleeping with his wife.

A white farmer, Loy Harrison, paid $600 to bail Malcom out on July 25, 1946. He was driving the Malcoms and Dorseys home, he told investigators, when he was ambushed by a mob.

Harrison was unharmed and told authorities he didn't recognize anyone in the mob, which the FBI numbered at 20 to 25 people. An FBI report noted Harrison was a former Ku Klux Klansman and well-known bootlegger. The months-long FBI investigation identified many possible suspects, some merely because they were Hester's relatives, friends or neighbors, or because they had no alibis. But no one was charged.

The case has been revisited by investigators multiple times, and journalists, students, cold-case groups and historians have visited the bridge and surrounding towns hoping to turn up evidence or find someone who will talk.

"The Moore's Ford Lynching is clearly an event of exceptional historical significance," Circuit Judge Charles Wilson wrote in the majority opinion published Monday. "Compared to the journalist or the family member of a victim that seeks access to the details of a salacious unsolved crime, the Moore's Ford Lynching is historically significant because it is closely tied to the national civil rights movement."

Wilson also noted that enough time has passed that the witnesses, suspects or their immediate family members likely aren't alive to be intimidated, persecuted or arrested.

U.S. District Judge James Graham of Ohio, who served on the panel, wrote in a dissenting opinion that "judges should not be so bold as to grant themselves the authority to decide that the historical significance exception should exist and what the criteria should be."

Graham also said he worried that people who are still alive today may experience reputational harm if the transcripts "reveal that their parent or grandparent was a suspect, a witness who equivocated or was uncooperative, a member of the grand jury which refused to indict, or a person whose name was identified as a Klan member."

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