In life, FBI informant Earnest Gilbert so feared his fellow Ku Klux Klansmen that he never had the courage to testify about the 1964 killings of two black teenagers. In death, his voice is finally being heard in a courtroom.
Prosecutors in a revived civil rights-era case are trying to persuade a federal judge to allow a television interview that Gilbert, who died in 2004, gave in 2000 to be used as evidence in the trial of reputed Klansman James Ford Seale.
Defense attorneys on Tuesday played clips of the ABC "20/20" interview about the slayings of Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee, both 19.
On May 2, 1964 — exactly 43 years ago on Wednesday — the teens were abducted in the southwest Mississippi town of Roxie and beaten in the Homochitto National Forest before being weighted down and thrown into the Mississippi River to drown.
Seale, 71, was arrested in January and has pleaded not guilty to two counts of kidnapping and one count of conspiracy. Jury selection begins May 29, and U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate is deciding whether prosecutors can show the video clips during the trial.
Prosecutors say that Seale and Gilbert and were both high-ranking Klan members at the time of the slayings, and that Gilbert implicated Seale to FBI agents.
A black law enforcement officer from Louisiana testified Tuesday that he befriended Gilbert — the founder of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi — and acted as a "go between" when ABC producers began urging Gilbert to tell his story.
Eddie Stewart Jr. told the court that he didn't know his new friend was involved in the Klan until he got a late-night call in 2000 from Gilbert, who said "that I was the only person he trusted" and he needed advice.
‘He called some names’
When Gilbert arrived that night at Stewart's house, he told Stewart about being the spokesman for the Klan in Mississippi — responsible for "motivational speeches" and "intimidation."
And, Stewart said, Gilbert was so scared of the Klansmen involved in the killings of Dee and Moore that he always carried a 9 mm pistol in his back pocket.
"He called some names," Stewart testified. "James Seale, Clyde Seale, Jack Seale and Earnest Parker."
James Ford Seale is the only one still living.
In earlier testimony Tuesday, retired FBI agent Reesie L. Timmons testified that Klan informants told him that James Ford Seale; Seale's father, Clyde Seale; and brother, Jack Seale were feared even among other Klansmen because of their reputation for violence.
"They were absolutely considered the leaders — the dictators — of the Klan in that part of the country," Timmons said, adding that other Klansmen believed that "they were killers."
Sharing 'common knowledge'
Timmons also testified that it was "common knowledge" among Ku Klux Klan members that the Seales were involved in the deaths of Dee and Moore.
Federal public defender George Lucas asked why none of that information showed up in FBI reports Timmons filed at the time.
Timmons said that he "didn't think rumors amongst the Klan were pertinent."
"That's all you have is rumors," Lucas said.
Seale, shackled and wearing an orange jail jumpsuit, shook his head during testimony about his family.
Timmons said he visited Gilbert in 1964, trying to convince him to testify, but Gilbert feared for himself and his family.
"He could hardly walk. He was absolutely certain he was going to get shot," Timmons testified.
Wingate will weigh the testimony when considering motions, including one to dismiss the charges and another to reveal the identities of confidential informants.
At the time Moore and Dee were abducted and killed, the FBI was consumed by the much more highly publicized search for three civil rights workers in Neshoba County and turned the Seale case over to local authorities. The charges were thrown out.