During her largely improvised closing argument, federal prosecutor Paige Fitzgerald stumbled upon one of the most poetic moments in the James Ford Seale federal kidnapping trial.
The two-week trial certainly had no shortage of poetry. Take, to begin, the battle of wits between Fitzgerald and Federal Public Defender Kathy Nester—each one listed beneath male lead attorneys on the criminal docket, but themselves the undisputed stars of a vigorous legal showdown (evidenced by each side's decision to close with them).
Take U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate, magnanimous to jurors and witnesses and grindingly scrupulous to jurisprudence. Take the color of his skin—black—and the stumbling attempt by Nester's former lead attorney, Dennis Joiner, to suggest that it would bias his judgment against Seale. (This, after decades of an explicit bias that white Mississippi judges and juries held to the benefit of white defendants in racial hate crimes.) Take, then, the mostly white jury in 2007—eight out of 12—and the two hours it took for them to send a 71-year-old white man to jail for kidnapping two black teenagers in 1964.
Take the unexpected, blunt and apparently sincere courtroom apology of the prosecution's star witness—confessed Klansman and co-conspirator Charles Marcus Edwards—to the families of the victims whose deaths he helped ensure. And finally, take the open rejoicing of a largely African American gallery—composed of the victims' families, civil-rights heroes, activists and observers—when a court aide read aloud the final poetic act of justice: three guilty counts.
Reflecting on time and space and the flow of justice (slow, perhaps, but not completely stagnant), Fitzgerald appealed to the poetry of all of us being there, in that courtroom—inside a courthouse named, in poetic irony, after arch white supremacist Sen. James O. Eastland—during her closing argument.
"I was thinking of the long journey that has been made from the bottom of the Ole Mississippi River to this courtroom," she said.
On that day—June 14, the day of the jury's lightning strike of a decision—the journey from the riverbed had lasted 43 years, one month and 12 days. The trial proper lasted only nine days, but in all, it took 130, beginning with Seale's bond hearing on Jan. 29 and spanning several months of carefully argued pretrial motion hearings. During that time, Seale spent his nights at the Madison County Jail. All of those nights, and some 15,000 nights beforehand, the families of Charles Moore and Henry Dee fell asleep knowing that justice had still not been served. This unsettling certainty followed much of Dee and Moore's families to their graves.
"Not being able to see (Charles Moore's) body at the end of the casket—that pushed Mama, and tore her apart," Thomas Moore, Charles Moore's brother, said on the stand June 8.
He said that he himself had never rested, and could never escape his brother's death—not in Vietnam, where he served, or in the Rocky Mountains, where he now lives.
"I continue to have nightmares. I continue to have dreams. I continue to ask why. I've had hard times," he said.
The bones of Dee and Moore—recovered in sections, first by fishermen and then by Navy divers—had emerged from the murky Mississippi but had never, truly, been put to rest. In many ways, they were still chained to Ernest Parker's Jeep engine block and two railroad spikes and car wheels.
Thelma Collins, Dee's older sister, saw the pile of bones that remained of her brother two months after Seale and other Klansmen drowned Dee and Moore on May 2, 1964. It was the last image she saw of her brother until two years ago, when federal prosecutors showed her the only surviving photograph of Henry Dee. Prosecutors used both images in court to great effect—Dee's smiling face in one instant and his dark clump of bones on a medical examiner's table in another. In a shaky voice, the 70-year-old Collins took the stand on June 5 to describe her futile efforts to identify the bones.
"We went to Jackson and did the best we could do, but we couldn't do it. It was just a plastic bag," she said.
When asked what was in the bag, Collins said: "It was like bones and stuff like that."
Collins said that after seeing the plastic bag, she became so upset and sick that her aunt and uncle took her home and refused to allow her to attend her brother's funeral.
Dee and Moore were ultimately identified by personal effects: Moore's gold watch, an Alcorn College dormitory key and belt buckle with an "M" engraved for "Moore," and Dee's wallet and papers. Moore's skull, which the Mississippi mud had polished black, was missing the four top front teeth he lost playing football with his brother. Dee's skull was only partially recovered.
As Collins spoke, Thomas Moore's son, Jeffrey—who bears a strong resemblance to Charles Moore—stared with eyes wide and blinking at the document releasing his uncle's remains, projected onto a large TV screen several feet from him.
After the guilty verdict, Collins sobbed and hugged her daughter, Donna Collins, whom she brought to the trial after decades of practicing silence with her children regarding their uncle's brutal death.
"I kept it to myself. I dealt with it, because I didn't want my children to hate nobody," Thelma Collins told the Jackson Free Press minutes after the verdict, with Donna Collins by her side.
She said, as Thomas Moore did, that she forgave Edwards after his apology. She said that she felt sorry for Seale, because the trial had not gained momentum until he had reached old age and feeble health.
"I would forgive him if he asked for forgiveness," she said of Seale.
"I'm still kind of nervous, (but) I made it through it. You shed a tear, and you move on."
And so goes that long journey, from the bottom of the Mississippi to the steps of the federal courthouse in Jackson. What happened inside is history.
Matt Saldaña is the JFP's acting assistant editor this summer. He blogged the Seale trial daily at The Road To Meadville Blog.
This article has been corrected since it was first posted.
Once again, congratulations to Matt for a job well done!
Collins said that after seeing the plastic bag, she became so upset and sick that her aunt and uncle took her home and refused to allow her to attend her brother’s funeral.
Just thought I'd point that out. :-)