A federal jury on Thursday convicted reputed Klansman James Ford Seale of kidnapping and conspiracy in the 1964 deaths of two black teenagers in southwest Mississippi.
Seale, 71, had pleaded not guilty to charges related to the deaths of Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee. The 19-year-olds disappeared from Franklin County on May 2, 1964, and their bodies were found later in the Mississippi River.
Federal prosecutors indicted Seale in January almost 43 years after the slayings. When he is sentenced Aug. 24, he faces life in prison on the two counts of kidnapping and one count of conspiracy.
The prosecution’s star witness was Charles Marcus Edwards, a confessed Klansman. During closing arguments earlier in the day, prosecutors acknowledged they made “a deal with the devil” but said that offering immunity to Edwards to get his testimony against Seale was the only way to get justice.
Edwards testified that he and Seale belonged to the same Klan chapter, or “klavern,” that was led by Seale’s father. Seale has denied he belonged to the Klan.
Edwards testified that Dee and Moore were stuffed, alive, into the trunk of Seale’s Volkswagen and driven to a farm. They were later tied up and driven across the Mississippi River into Louisiana, Edwards said, and Seale told him that Dee and Moore were attached to heavy weights and dumped alive into the river.
“Those two 19-year-old kids had to have been absolutely terrified,” U.S. Attorney Dunn Lampton told jurors, who sat quietly.
'A man out to save his own skin'
In its closing arguments, the defense asserted that Seale should be acquitted because the case was based on the word of an “admitted liar.”
“This case all comes down to the word of one man, an admitted liar, a man out to save his own skin,” federal public defender Kathy Nester said. “A case based on his word is no case at all.”
In the final part of closing arguments, federal prosecutor Paige Fitzgerald rebutted Nester’s claims that Edwards could not be trusted. Fitzgerald also suggested that Seale’s own words incriminated him.
“Let me tell you about one man’s word. ’Yes. But I’m not going to admit it. You’re going to have to prove it,”’ Fitzgerald said, repeating a statement that a retired FBI agent testified he heard Seale make after being arrested on a state murder charge in 1964. That charge was later dropped.
The defense claimed that the prosecution failed to prove key elements needed for conviction and didn’t establish that Seale had crossed state lines while committing a crime, which is vital because that’s what gives the federal government jurisdiction.
Lampton described for the jury how Dee and Moore were hitchhiking, stopped by Klansmen and taken to a forest where they were beaten. Klansmen were trying to find out if blacks were bringing firearms into Franklin County, Lampton said.
“Henry Dee and Charles Moore didn’t know ... why they had been singled out and brought back in the forest,” Lampton said.