Seale Civil Rights Murder Trial Begins, 43 Years On Opening statements are heard in the case of James Ford Seale, who has pleaded not guilty to federal kidnapping and conspiracy charges in connection with the 1964 murders of two black teenagers who were hitchhiking in rural Mississippi. The trial is expected to take two weeks.
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Seale Civil Rights Murder Trial Begins, 43 Years On

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Seale Civil Rights Murder Trial Begins, 43 Years On

Seale Civil Rights Murder Trial Begins, 43 Years On

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

The federal trial of James Ford Seale is underway in Mississippi. He's charged with kidnapping and conspiracy in the 1964 murder of two black teens, Henry Dee and Charles Moore. Seale has pleaded not guilty.

From Jackson, NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR: The sister of Henry Dee, Thelma Collins, told the jury that she asked to identify the remains of her brother in 1964. She struggled recalling the event. There was nothing we could do, Collins testified as she sobbed. There was nothing but just a plastic bag left, with bones and stuff like that. The prosecution's case is emotional. It began with the jury looking at black and white photos of the young men, smiling.

Prosecutor Paige Fitzgerald told the jury that the teenagers were beaten because Klan leaders thought Dee was part of the Black Panthers, that he was involved in bringing guns to Mississippi to arm blacks. She told the jury that the two were hitchhiking on May 2nd, 1964. Seale and other Klansmen picked them up and drove them deep into the forest, to a place so remote that a car a week might pass through.

The two were tied up, interrogated and beaten. No guns were ever found, but the men were tied with weights and dumped alive into the Mississippi River. Parts of their bodies washed up after they had been in the water for two months. A huge search was underway for three civil rights workers, who had disappeared from Philadelphia, Mississippi. They found the bodies of Dee and Moore first.

The jury will hear from a former FBI agent, who says Seale acknowledged committing the crime, but he said, I'm not going to admit it. You are going to have to prove it. A frail-looking Seale in a cream shirt and trousers, mostly steered straight ahead and showed no emotion in the courtroom. He has looked over at the jury of four blacks and eight whites from time to time. The panel is not sequestered for the trial.

The victims' families have also been in the courtroom in the first few rows, including Charles Moore's brother, Thomas Moore, who helped get officials to reopen the case.

Mr. THOMAS MOORE: It is a happy moment for me. And I don't expect everybody to feel that way because Charles Moore wouldn't have (unintelligible) everybody. But for me, I feel okay.

LOHR: During his opening statement, public defender George Lucas called the murders a tragic, horrible incident. But he said there's no credible evidence that Seale is guilty of the charges. Lucas said the only evidence comes from Charles Edwards, a reputed Klansmen who talked about his participation and implicated Seale at the time. Edwards is now testifying in exchange for immunity.

He has given different stories to police, the FBI, U.S. attorneys and even the news media, so the defense says Edwards can't be trusted.

Lucas reminded the jury Seale is not charged with being a racist. That may be the wrong thing, he said, but it's not a crime. Watching the first several witnesses testify underscores why it's hard to bring cult cases to trial. One retired FBI agent had difficulty recalling the investigation and read from his notes at the time.

And a former game warden had such a tough time hearing that the prosecutor asked if he wanted a hearing aid. Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood says there's an obligation to bring these old cases to trial.

Attorney General JIM HOOD (Mississippi): We can't help what didn't occur 40 years ago, but we can help those victims that have had family members murdered and nothing was done.

LOHR: The trial is expected to take two weeks. A Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary on the case airs this weekend.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Jackson, Mississippi.

ROBERTS: You can follow a timeline of the four-decade-long case against James Seale and browse FBI files at npr.org.

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