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Federal appeals court rejects challenge to conviction of former Klansman

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit [official website] upheld [DOJ press release] on Friday the 2007 conviction of former Ku Klux Klan [ADL backgrounder] member James Ford Seale [JURIST news archive; Clarion Ledger backgrounder] for the kidnapping and deaths of two African American 19-year-olds in 1964. The 18 judges of the court were asked to determine en banc whether an amended statute of limitations barred prosecuting the crimes, and their even split vote has the effect of upholding Seale's prior conviction. The prosecution [brief text] relied heavily on the court's 1986 ruling in Griffon v. United States Department of Health and Human Services [opinion text], arguing that any decision to vacate Seale's sentence would conflict "with this Court's precedent for applying conflicting canons of statutory construction" where the Court had already ruled against retroactive application of the procedural aspects of a law containing both procedural and substantive components. The defense argued [brief text] that the Griffon rationale was inapplicable because absent guidance from Congress that stipulates any prohibitions, "statutes of limitations are procedural in nature and should be applied retroactively." Seale, now aged 73, has been in an Indiana federal jail throughout his appeal because he was considered a flight risk. A three-judge panel will hear the remaining claims in Seale's appeal.

The US Department of Justice successfully petitioned the court to hear the case en banc after a three-judge panel vacated Seale's sentence [text; JURIST report] in September 2008, based on Seale's argument that a five-year statute of limitations for non-capital crimes [18 USC 3282 text] enacted in 1972 applied retroactively to his 2007 indictment. In 2007, Seale was convicted on two counts of kidnapping resulting in death and one count of conspiracy in connection with the 1964 events, and was sentenced [JURIST reports] to three lifetimes in jail.

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