A man acquitted this week on federal charges of abducting two black teenagers slain in 1964 is sick, has no criminal record and should be released from prison immediately, his attorneys said Thursday.
State and federal authorities, meanwhile, scrambled to review the decades-old case in hopes of keeping reputed Ku Klux Klansman James Ford Seale behind bars.
Seale, 73, was convicted in June 2007 and spent just over a year in prison on kidnapping and conspiracy charges related to the abduction and slayings of Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee. The two 19-year-old friends were allegedly beaten, weighted down and thrown, possibly still alive, into a Mississippi River backwater in May 1964.
Federal authorities had praised Seale's conviction and three life sentences as proof that civil rights era killings had not been forgotten. But now that an appeals court has overturned Seale's conviction, his attorneys want him released immediately.
"This new exceptional circumstance, combined with the still existing factors of Mr. Seale's advanced age and debilitating health problems, makes continued detention inappropriate in this case," they wrote in a motion filed Thursday with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Seale is in a prison in Indiana, where he has been treated for cancer, bone spurs and other health problems. His attorneys said in their motion that he is neither a flight risk nor a danger to the community.
Case cold for years
A three-judge panel of the appeals court overturned Seale's conviction Tuesday, ruling that the statute of limitations for kidnapping had expired in the more than 40 years between the abductions and Seale's arrest. The case had been cold for years when Moore's brother, who was working on a film about the killings, found Seale in south Mississippi in 2005. Many thought he was dead.
Federal prosecutors can appeal, but legal experts say it is unlikely the ruling will be reversed.
Seale could, however, be tried on state murder charges, which have no statute of limitations. Mississippi's attorney general and a district attorney in Franklin County, where Dee and Moore were abducted, are reviewing the case.
"This has been a collaborative effort since the beginning — our office, the U.S. attorney's office and law enforcement. And I've been in communication with them and obviously we're discussing our possibilities and discussing what is our most advantageous way to proceed," said Franklin County District Attorney Ronnie Harper.
Kidnapped, thrown into river
At Seale's trial, no one who testified claimed to have seen the killings. The key witness was Charles Marcus Edwards, who was promised immunity and testified that he was with Seale when the teens were kidnapped but not when they were thrown into the river. There are also questions about whether the teens were killed in Mississippi or Louisiana, which was part of why authorities decided to pursue federal instead of state charges, Harper said.
Seale and Edwards had faced state murder charges in the case in 1964, but federal prosecutors said they were quickly thrown out because local law enforcement officers were in collusion with the Klan.
The case took a back seat to the high-profile search for three civil rights workers who also disappeared in Mississippi.