Racism, Ambivalence Exist in Jury Pool for 1964 Mississippi Murder Case
JACKSON, Miss. -- The federal trial of a reputed Klansman in Mississippi presents a tableau of contrasts between the old South and the new.
Opening arguments are set to start Monday in the case of James Ford Seale, 71, who has pleaded not guilty to kidnapping and conspiracy in the 1964 beating and drowning deaths of two Black teenagers, Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore.
The crimes took place in the woods of rural southwest Mississippi at a time when local law officers often looked the other way as the Ku Klux Klan terrorized anyone who dared challenge the strictly segregated society.
The trial is taking place in an air-conditioned courtroom 100 miles away and 43 years later, backed by the resources of the U.S. Justice Department. The Yale-educated judge, Henry T. Wingate, is a Black man who grew up in Jackson and is two years younger than the victims would have been if they'd lived.
Seale has denied being belonging to the Klan. Prosecutors say his cousin Charles Marcus Edwards, another reputed Klansmen, has been granted immunity and will testify against Seale.
Jury selection stretched three days last week and attorneys conducted one-on-one interviews, in open court, with 78 potential jurors from across the southern half of Mississippi. By Friday night, the field was narrowed 34 people, about one-third of whom are Black. On Monday, 12 jurors and a yet-unannounced number of alternates will be chosen to hear the case.
Opening arguments are set for Monday afternoon, and prosecutors said their first witnesses will be three men who dragged the decomposing bodies of Dee and Moore from the Mississippi River two months after the 19-year-old friends disappeared.
Wingate is keeping jurors' names secret at the request of prosecutors, who said some might fear to serve in a case involving Klan violence.
This is the latest of several unsolved civil rights-era cases that have been revived across the South since the early 1990s. Some potential jurors in the Seale trial said they have no problem with prosecutors pursuing a case that's decades old, while others said they're puzzled or angry about the case being brought to court now.
One young woman who eventually was excused from the jury pool called the trial "a waste of time."
"I kind of feel like if he is guilty, he has paid for it every day and will pay for it when he's gone," said the woman, who wrote on a pretrial questionnaire that she believes she faces daily discrimination because she's white. She also said some members of her immediate family have attended meetings of the White supremacist Aryan Nations and one close relative inquired about joining the KKK in the past few years.
Another potential juror who remains in the pool is a middle-aged White man who said he remembers hooded Klansmen marching as halftime entertainment at high school football games in Philadelphia, Miss., during the 1960s. The man said he now lives in a mostly Black neighborhood.
"Segregation, to me, is ridiculous now," he said.
Several relatives of Dee and Moore have been in court throughout the jury selection process, including Moore's older brother, Thomas Moore of Colorado Springs, Colo., who pushed prosecutors to reopen the cold case. They're sitting within 25 feet of Seale, who seldom turns to look at spectators.
The trial is taking place in a courthouse named decades ago for the late U.S. Sen. James O. Eastland, a segregationist who first took office in the early 1940s and served as chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee from 1955 until he retired in 1978.
Wingate, appointed to the bench by President Reagan in 1985, is the chief U.S. district judge for the southern half of Mississippi. He presides in a courtroom where blue velvet curtains cover a 1938 Works Progress Administration mural that depicts slaves picking cotton. The 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ordered that the mural be covered years before Wingate became a judge.
Two of the lead attorneys in the Seale case -- federal prosecutor Paige Fitzgerald and federal public defender Kathy Nester -- were born on the same day in 1967, nearly three years after the crimes took place.
And Seale is now a frail-looking man who complains of back pain and has a hearing problem that requires him to wear a wishbone-shaped hearing aid provided by the court.
Prosecutors say that on May 2, 1964, Seale was among the Klansmen who picked up Dee and Charles Moore while they were hitchhiking along a highway near Meadville.
Dee and Charles Moore were taken to the Homochitto National Forest and Seale pointed a sawed-off shotgun at them while other Klansmen beat the young men with switches and tree branches and interrogated them about rumors that Black people were stockpiling guns, an indictment says.
During the beatings, Dee and Charles Moore admitted falsely that they had information about guns being brought into Franklin County, the indictment says, and the Klan members went to a church in the tiny town of Roxie and unsuccessfully searched for guns with the local sheriff.
The indictment says Dee and Charles Moore were taken to a farm owned by one of the attackers and they were bound with duct tape. The young men, still alive, were driven through parts of Louisiana to Parker's Landing near Vicksburg, Miss. The indictment says the Klansmen tied Dee to a Jeep engine block and Charles Moore to iron weights and railroad rails, and dumped the young men, still breathing, into the Mississippi River.
Their bodies were found in July 1964 during a massive manhunt for three civil rights workers who disappeared in June from central Mississippi's Neshoba County. The FBI was consumed by the "Mississippi Burning" case from Neshoba County, and turned the investigation of the deaths of Dee and Charles Moore over to local authorities.
Seale and Edwards were charged in the deaths of the teenagers, but those charges were dropped. The FBI reopened an investigation in 2000, only to close it in 2003 and reopen it in 2005. Seale was indicted and arrested this past January, and has remained jailed while awaiting trial.
--The Associated Press