Reputed Klansman set for trial in 1964 deaths

Published May 27, 2007

JACKSON, Miss. - More than 300 potential jurors have been summoned for the trial of a reputed Ku Klux Klansman accused of abducting, beating and dumping two young black men into the Mississippi River 43 years ago.

James Ford Seale, 71, is to go on trial this week on kidnapping and conspiracy charges in the latest of several Jim Crow-era cases to be revived and brought to trial across the South in the past 13 years.

Seale, of Roxie, has been jailed since he was indicted and arrested in January. He has pleaded not guilty to taking part in the May 2, 1964, attacks on 19-year-olds Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore in rural southwest Mississippi.

Jury selection for his federal trial in Jackson is to start Wednesday, and attorneys anticipate that part of the case could last up to four days.

The tableau - lawyers questioning would-be jurors about their thoughts on race before picking them to judge facts in crimes that date to the civil rights era - has become a familiar one in the South.

'Present business'

Rita Schwerner Bender, the widow of a civil rights worker killed elsewhere in Mississippi in 1964, said there is value in American society re-examining long-dormant cases from an era of racial brutality.

"On the one hand, you could say it's old because it happened so long ago, " Bender said from her law office in Seattle. "On the other hand, the very fact that there has been no acknowledgment until now indicates that it is not old history. It's present business."

Mitch Moran, a lawyer who represented the man convicted in Michael Schwerner's death, disagreed. He called the revival of decades-old cases "a political movement."

"It's a new thing, I guess, digging these cases up, trying to find a jury that is going to apply the law and not feel like they are supposed to come up with a certain verdict, " said Moran, of Carthage, Miss.

Moran defended Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen in 2005, when the state of Mississippi brought the first murder case in the slayings of Michael Schwerner and fellow civil rights workers James Chaney and Andrew Goodman. Killen, convicted of manslaughter, is serving a 60-year sentence.

Each potential juror in the Seale case was required to fill out an extensive questionnaire that touched on a wide range of topics designed to reveal attitudes about race: Have you or any of your relatives ever belonged to the Klan or the NAACP? What do you think about interracial relationships? Do you attend religious services with people of other races?

In May 1964, hundreds of college students were preparing to travel to Mississippi for "Freedom Summer" to push for voter registration and other rights for blacks who had suffered under decades of segregation.

Dee and Moore were not among the Freedom Summer activists. Rather, they were two friends who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Prosecutors say Dee and Moore were hitchhiking when Seale picked them up and, followed by other Klansmen in another vehicle, took them to Homochitto National Forest.

Court documents say the young men were beaten with switches and branches while Seale aimed a sawed-off shotgun at them. They were stuffed into a trunk alive and dumped into the Mississippi River.