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Fifth Circuit vacates conviction of ex-KKK member tried for civil rights era killings

[JURIST] A three-judge panel for the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on Tuesday vacated the conviction [opinion, PDF] of former Ku Klux Klan (KKK) [WARNING: readers may find this website offensive; JURIST news archive] member James Ford Seale for his involvement in the 1964 deaths of two 19-year-old black teens. Seale was sentenced to three life terms in August 2007, two months after his conviction [JURIST reports] in Mississippi federal court on two counts of kidnapping resulting in death and one count of conspiracy [18 U.S.C. 1201(a) and (c) text]. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit considered only whether a five-year statute of limitations for non-capital crimes [18 U.S.C. 3282 text] enacted in 1972 could retroactively apply to bar Seale's 2007 indictment for the 1964 killings. Endorsing the view that "statutory changes that are procedural or remedial in nature apply retroactively," the court held:

The district court erred by failing to recognize the presumption that changes affecting statutes of limitation apply retroactively, even without explicit direction from Congress. While we are mindful of the seriousness of the crimes at issue, we cannot abdicate our duty to faithfully apply a valid limitations period.
The 71-year-old Seale has been in federal prison since his 2007 conviction. AP has more.

In 1964, Seale had been arrested on suspicion of kidnapping Henry Dee and Charles Moore, who were later found dead in the Mississippi River, but was released due to insufficient evidence. Federal prosecutors revived the case years later by relying on the testimony of Charles Marcus Edwards, a former fellow KKK member who received immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony. The case was one of several recently re-opened civil rights-era cases [US News backgrounder] following the 2005 conviction of Edgar Ray Killen [JURIST report] for the 1964 deaths of three civil rights activists. In June 2007, the US House of Representatives passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act [JURIST report], establishing an Unsolved Crimes Section within the civil rights divisions of the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation [official websites].

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