Way back in May 1964, in the very small town of Meadville, Mississippi, two black teenagers were hitchhiking down the road when James Ford Seale drove up. Seale, a member of the KKK, told them he was a revenooer looking for moonshiners, and told the boys to get in his car. He then drove them off into the forest. A bunch of other Klansmen met up with them.
Seale pointed a sawed-off shotgun at the boys, while the other Klansmen tied them to a tree. Then the boys were whipped to within an inch of their lives with “bean sticks.” The bloodied boys were hauled to a farm nearby, where Seale bound and gagged them with duct tape. The boys were wrapped in a tarp, shoved into a Klansman’s trunk, and driven 100 miles to a secluded riverbank.
While the boys were still alive, they were chained to the engine block of an old Jeep, and to pieces of railroad track. Then the Klansmen dumped the boys in the river, where they drowned. One of the Klansmen later reported that Seale “would have shot them first, but didn’t want to get blood all over the boat.”
The boys were killed because they were black, and because Seale thought they might have been civil-rights workers.
In June 1964, three civil rights workers went to Longdale, Mississippi, to investigate the burning of a Methodist Church that had been a civil-rights meeting place. A sheriff’s deputy, also a KKK member, recognized their car and locked all three up. The men were held incognito until an ambush could be prepared, and then were told to get out of the county. The deputy followed them to the edge of town, then pulled them over again. A KKK gang showed up, and the three workers were taken to an isolated place to be brutally beaten and shot to death. Their car was burned in a swamp, and their bodies were buried in a dam.
Their disappearance got national attention, and search parties went out.
In July, one of the search parties found the drowned bodies of the two boys Seale had killed in May.
Seale and several others were investigated for the murders, appearing before a House subcommittee on Un-American Activities in 1966. The Klansmen were asked about a number of kidnappings and murders, but nothing ever came of it. Seale just sat there smoking a cigar, and took the Fifth.
About forty years went by. The murders of Charles Moore and Henry Dee were forgotten.
Then a Canadian filmmaker saw some old CBC footage of the boys’ bodies being hauled out of the river, with the narration “it was the wrong body. The finding of a negro male was noted and forgotten. The search was not for him. The search was for two white youths and their negro friend.”
The filmmaker, David Ridgen, began working on what would become the documentary “Mississippi Cold Case.” He tracked down the brother of one of the victims, a retired 30-year Army veteran named Thomas Moore, who helped work on the film.
The press had been told that Seale had died in the meantime. But it was discovered that he still lived, and his family had lied to protect him. Ridgen and Moore went to the local U.S. Attorney, who promised to re-open the case.
In early 2007, Seale was indicted on two counts of kidnapping and one count of conspiracy. A fellow Klansman, after being given immunity, told the whole story. Seale was convicted of kidnapping after a jury trial in June 2007.
In August 2007, Seale was given three life sentences.
Seale appealed to the Fifth Circuit. He argued that the statute of limitations for kidnapping had run out. At the time of the crime, there was no limitations period; but in 1972 it changed to a 5-year period.
That’s a pretty damn good argument. It was a capital kidnapping in 1964, which had no statute of limitations. But then in 1972 we got rid of capital punishment. So it reverted to an ordinary 5-year period.
The government pointed out that in 1994, after Furman v. Georgia, we brought back the death penalty. It was constitutional again. So this was a capital kidnapping again. And he was prosecuted and sentenced after it had been deemed a capital kidnapping again. So there was no statute of limitations.
The Fifth Circuit agreed with Seale, and reversed his conviction in September 2008.
The prosecution requested a rehearing en banc. The full panel vacated the appellate decision, so that it could reconsider the issue. They sort of have to do that.
The full panel then duly reconsidered the issue, and split evenly down the middle in June 2009. The effect was to leave the trial court’s conviction and sentence intact. The original Fifth Circuit decision had been vacated.
So now there was no appellate decision at all! And Seale was left with no more avenues to fight his conviction.
Seale took it to the Supreme Court. It wasn’t a petition for certiorari, but the almost-forgotten “certified question.”
How that works is, the Circuit “certifies” a question that it wants the Supremes to help out with. The Supreme Court is asked to instruct the Circuit court on how it ought to rule in the case.
That’s permitted by Rule 19 of the Supreme Court rules, but it only happens once in a blue moon. The last time it happened was in 1981, when the Second Circuit asked for help with the President’s authority to say claims before the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal had no legal effect in U.S. courts (the Supremes said he can do it). There was another certified question in the 1970s on whether a retired judge gets to vote on whether to hear a case en banc (no). Before that, there was one in 1964 on whether there is a right to a jury in a criminal contempt case (no). And the only other one in living memory was in 1946, where the Supremes said the Circuit can’t review by mandamus a district court’s remand back to the state court after the case had been removed to the district court.
So here was a historic opportunity for the Supreme Court to not only decide a rare certified question, but also to decide an issue of great importance to a variety of civil-rights-era cases that are still kicking around the federal courts.
And the Court refused.
This isn’t the first time the Roberts Court has punted on issues that it really ought to have decided. And the did it again here.
This is an issue that may seem hyper-technical, but it is critically important! There are a lot of old cases kicking around that were capital cases at the time, then weren’t and now are again. There’s lots of aging Klansmen out there, not to mention the number of cold-case murders being resuscitated by DNA evidence. Whether the feds can even prosecute these cases any more is at stake!
Not to mention the fact that Seale, horrible as his crimes were, seems now to have been denied due process. He can’t appeal any more? Just because the Circuit (singular) split, and the Supreme Court punted? His legal argument is going to go undecided? How is that remotely right?
The Court doesn’t write opinions from a denial of a certified question. But they sure got a dissenting opinion today, in United States v. James Ford Seale, by the strangest of bedfellows: Justices Stevens and Scalia.
The two, usually diametrically opposed in their jurisprudence and judicial philosophy, agreed wholeheartedly that the Court should have decided this case.
This certificate presents us with a pure question of law that may well determine the outcome of a number of cases of ugly racial violence remaining from the 1960s. The question is what statute of limitations applies to a prosecution under 18 U.S.C. §1201 commenced in 2007 for a kidnapping offense that occurred in 1964.
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In 1964, a violation of §1201 was a capital offense [if] the victim was harmed, and since 1994 a violation of §1201 has been a capital offense when the kidnapping results in the loss of life. But for more than two decades in between, Seale’s crime was not punishable by death.
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The question is narrow, debatable, and important. … I see no benefit, and significant cost, to postponing the question’s resolution. A prompt answer from this Court will expedite the termination of this litigation and determine whether other similar cases may be prosecuted.
We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.