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Cold Case Justice Initiative at SU College of Law issues statement on U.S. Court of Appeals reversal of conviction of James Ford Seale for Civil Rights era murders
Cold Case Justice Initiative at SU College of Law issues statement on U.S. Court of Appeals reversal of conviction of James Ford Seale for Civil Rights era murdersSeptember 11, 2008Jaclyn D. Grossojgrosso@law.syr.edu
The Cold Case Justice Initiative (CCJI) at Syracuse University College of Law issued its reaction to a decision filed yesterday by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to reverse the 2007 conviction of James Ford Seale for the 1964 kidnapping and murders of Charles Moore and Henry Dee in Mississippi. CCJI is an interdisciplinary project that engages SU College of Law faculty and students to seek justice for racially motivated murders during the Civil Rights era on behalf of the victims, their families, local communities and society at large.
SU College of Law Professor Janis McDonald, CCJI co-director, called the decision “disappointing and taken out of the larger context of a failure to utilize the law that existed at the time.” She states that the case should have resulted in criminal convictions 43 years ago.
In the court’s decision, a three-judge panel ruled that a five-year statute of limitations should have barred federal criminal prosecution against Seale, who was convicted under a federal criminal statute (Title 18 United States Code section 1201(a) and (c).) At the time of Dee and Moore’s deaths, the death penalty crime did not have a time bar. However, a subsequent 1968 Supreme Court ruling invalidated the death penalty provision in the kidnapping crime and Congress eliminated the death penalty in section 1201.
The question addressed by the panel of judges from the Fifth Circuit was whether the five year limit on prosecutions applied to a crime committed in 1964. They ruled that the change of punishment retroactively changed the statute of limitations. According to McDonald, the court strained to apply the five year bar on prosecutions for what she calls a “43 year-old neglect of justice.”
“The decision appears contrary to well-settled Supreme Court decisions that refuse to apply amendments to a statute retroactively, absent a clear statement from Congress to the contrary. Instead, changes are meant to apply to prohibited future conduct. Even if the logic of the Fifth Circuit is followed, there was a more recent amendment that clearly stated that this crime had no statute of limitations, yet the court refuses to retroactively apply that statute,” says McDonald. Family members who have contacted the CCJI since the ruling are stunned by the reversal of the conviction of Seale and are hoping that the United States Supreme Court will review the decision.
For more information on CCJI, visit http://coldcaselaw.syr.edu.