Supreme Court Refuses to Decide Statute of Limitations in Seale Case | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Supreme Court Refuses to Decide Statute of Limitations in Seale Case


James Ford Seale during his trial in 2007.

Former Klansman James Ford Seale will remain in prison, at least for now. The U.S. Supreme Court today refused to address a question from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to decide whether too much time had passed for the case against Seale to proceed. "While we are disappointed that the U.S. Supreme Court chose not to decide the statute of limitations issue now, we look forward to our opportunity to present the issue to the court again when the remaining issues in the appeal have been finally resolved by the 5th Circuit," Seale's attorney Kathryn Nester said.

A federal jury convicted Seale in 2007 for the 1964 kidnapping of Charles Moore and Henry Dee. FBI records show that Seale, born in 1936, was a member of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The group suspected Dee of civil rights activity during the sometimes-violent civil rights era. FBI files further indicate that Seale and other Klansmen drove the men across state lines, tied Jeep engine parts to them and dropped them into the Mississippi River to drown.

U.S. Attorney Dunn Lampton reopened the case against Seale after Thomas Moore, the brother of victim Charles Moore, discovered Seale was still alive and living in Mississippi in 2005. The Jackson Free Press was traveling with Moore and reported Seale's whereabouts in July of that year, although other media had reported him dead.

Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson praised the Supreme Court's refusal to take up the issue, considering their decision to be a statement on the statute of limitations regarding kidnapping.

"I'm glad that the families of the victims can find some comfort that the guilty have received justice," Johnson said. "This decision upholds my belief that there should be no time limit on justice. The victims are still dead after all these years, so there's no reason that justice should have an expiration date."

In 1964, when the crimes took place, the kidnapping became a capital offense when the victims did not survive. As a capital offense, no statute of limitations would apply.

In 1968, however, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the death-penalty provision of the kidnapping law as unconstitutional in United States v. Jackson. Then, in 1972, Congress amended the statute, probably in response to the Jackson case, eliminating the death-penalty language altogether, arguably attaching a statute of limitations of five years, similar to other non-capital federal crimes.

Seale's defense team argued the question of whether the statute of limitations had expired on the kidnapping charges in Seale's 2007 trial. Judge Henry Wingate ruled for the prosecution at the time, saying that the Supreme Court's decision should not be applied retroactively to a crime that occurred in 1964 when the federal kidnapping charge was a capital offense.

The 5th Circuit Court disagreed with Wingate's ruling. Citing numerous legal cases in addition to those argued by Seale's defense team, the 5th Circuit held that a change in the statute of limitations is a procedural change that occurred as a result of the '68 ruling, not a substantive change to the law, and that a procedural change should apply retroactively when it does not harm the defendant, regardless of whether the change specifically stated that it should apply retroactively. Ex post facto—which holds that a change in law "after the fact" cannot be applied retroactively if it harms a defendant—does not apply.

Nester said today's Supreme Court rejection is not a statement upon the statute of limitations, because the judges offered no opinion on the matter; they simply rejected the plea to decide. The Supreme Court's dissenting opinion in the matter, written by Justice John Paul Stevens and joined by Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the court's most liberal and one of the most conservative justices, states: "The question is narrow, debatable and important," and urged the court to hear the issue, which it has refused to do.

A three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit found in Seale's favor followed by an "en banc" hearing of the issue before the entire court, which tied with a 9-to-9 vote, preventing the court from issuing an opinion, and resulting in the court's upholding the original conviction. The 5th Circuit then asked the U.S. Supreme Court to decide the issue, which they have refused to do.

Nester said the 5th Circuit must now go back and decide the remaining appeal issues in the case before Seale can officially attempt to appeal multiple arguments, including the statute of limitations issue, back up to the U.S. Supreme Court. The statute of limitations was only one issue among several arguments that she presented to the court, she said.

"We had an issue about whether or not there was sufficient evidence in the case to convict; we have typical speedy trial issues to address; the question of whether or not they should've suppressed his alleged confession, where he said, 'yeah, I did it, but you're going to have to prove it'; and whether they should've let in all the racially inflammatory evidence about him and the Ku Klux Klan," Nester said.

Previous Comments


Great work, Roni. Hopefully Seale's will lose on every end and finally pay the piper. His roommate or husband to be shouldn't have to keep waiting to see if they will finally be together. Those two young men died a horrible death. May Seale live a long suffering life and find forgiveness, but not before he's remarried. I like his lawyers, but I hope they lose.


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