A reputed Ku Klux Klansman convicted two years ago in the 1964 kidnappings of two black men asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday to decide whether the statute of limitations had expired before prosecutors charged him.
James Ford Seale, now 73, was found guilty in June 2007 of abducting two 19-year-old friends who authorities said were beaten, weighted down and thrown, possibly still alive, into a Mississippi River backwater.
Seale was serving three life sentences in a federal prison in Indiana when the conviction was thrown out last year by a panel of three 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges. The full 5th Circuit overturned the panel's decision last week.
The court in its ruling did not comment on whether the statute of limitations had expired in the case. The 9-9 vote meant the court affirmed the trial judge's original finding that the statute of limitations had not passed.
A split decision
Seale's attorneys asked the 5th Circuit to certify the question to the Supreme Court or rehear the case with an odd number of judges to prevent another tie.
"We are providing the court with some alternatives that we hope will enable this case to be decided in the appellate courts, rather than leaving this important legal question unresolved," said Kathy Nester, one of Seale's attorneys.
A U.S. Justice Department spokesman, Alejandro Miyar, declined comment.
At the time Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee disappeared, kidnapping was a capital crime punishable by death or imprisonment under federal law. There was no statute of limitations.
Defense: Kidnapping law was rewritten
In 1972, the federal kidnapping law was rewritten to remove the death penalty provision, which made a five-year statute of limitations apply. Seale's attorneys argue the limit applied retroactively to his case.
"Mr. Seale is facing three life sentences for a conviction that nine sitting judges have agreed was an unlawful prosecution," his attorneys argued in court documents. "Injustice will result if Mr. Seale is allowed to remain in jail for the remainder of his life on what is effectively a split decision on a pivotal question of law."
At least 22 other cold cases from the civil rights-era are under investigation, which "amplifies the importance" of resolving the issue, the motion said. A ruling by the Supreme Court would effectively decide if federal prosecutors will continue to have kidnapping charges as an option in current investigations into 1960s civil rights crimes.
If the Supreme Court doesn't hear Seale's request, his lawyers want the full 5th Circuit to rehear the case.
Prosecutors detail horrors of case
Prosecutors say Seale was with a group of Klansmen when they abducted Moore and Dee in southwest Mississippi. They took the teens into the woods and beat and interrogated them about rumors that blacks in the area were planning an armed uprising, prosecutors said.
The teens' remains were found in July that year when federal authorities searched for the bodies of three civil rights workers who had also disappeared that summer. That case became known as "Mississippi Burning" and overshadowed the deaths of Dee and Moore.
Seale and another man, Charles Marcus Edwards, briefly faced state murder charges in the deaths of Dee and Moore. Prosecutors say the charges were dropped because local law enforcement officers were in collusion with the Klan.
Many people thought Seale was dead until 2005, when he was discovered living in a town not far from where the teens were abducted and the case was reopened.