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Possible Government Accountability for 1964 Racial Murders

Jerry Mitchell reports that US District Judge Tom Lee will allow a lawsuit to go forward that could break new ground on holding Mississippi government accountable for the murders of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore. The lawsuit has been filed against Franklin County, MS, by Moore's brother Thomas and Dee's sister Thelma Collins. The two men were 19-years-old when they were murdered by Klansmen in 1964.

It is the first such lawsuit filed to clear the hurdle of the statute of limitations since unpunished killings from the civil rights era since cases began to be reopened in 1989.

"This is a landmark case — an extremely significant case," said Jackson lawyer Dennis Sweet, a lawyer for the families of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore, who were abducted and beaten by Klansmen on May 2, 1964, before being drowned in an old portion of the Mississippi River.

Reputed Klansman James Ford Seale is serving three life sentences for kidnapping and conspiracy in the case. His lawyers are appealing that conviction.

Lawyers defending Franklin County called the killings "abhorrent" but insisted the Klan was solely responsible: "There is no genuine evidence which exists linking the sheriff of Franklin County to the events alleged."

They argued the lawsuit should be dismissed because the statute of limitations is three years for this type of litigation and would have expired in 1967.

But Lee concluded that doesn’t mean the clock starts ticking immediately.

The judge quoted from a 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision, which found that the statute of limitations "does not run until the plaintiff is in possession of the 'crucial facts' that he has been hurt and the defendant is involved."

The lawsuit brought by the families' lawyers — Sweet, Warren Martin, Margaret Burnham and Charles Ogletree — said the then-Franklin County Sheriff Wayne Hutto and Deputy Kirby Shell conspired with the Klan to commit these crimes, refused to investigate after and then covered up their evil deeds.

To date, the courts have been a vehicle for belated prosecutions of individual perpetrators of racially motivated murders from the 1950s and 1960s. Prosecuting the perpetrators is an essential step towards justice and accountability for these crimes. But the individual Klansmen who did the shooting, bombing, burning and beating of African Americans are only part of the story. State responsibility for the violent crimes against African Americans in Mississippi and elsewhere in the South must also be addressed for justice to be done. This lawsuit against Franklin County looks at very specific ways local law enforcement played a role in the crime and in covering it up.

According to Judge Lee's opinion that Thomas Moore and Thelma Collins can proceed with their case against Franklin County, these are known facts in the case:

When Seale was tried on the federal charge in 2007, [Charles Marcus] Edwards testified against him. Edwards implicated himself in the crime. He testified that after the men were kidnaped, but before they were killed, the kidnapers went to the Sheriff’s office and, with the sheriff’s aid but without a search warrant, searched the Roxie First Baptist Church in Franklin County. After the church was searched, the law enforcement officers left the scene without investigating the case or assisting Dee and Moore in any manner. The kidnapers then stuffed Dee and Moore into the trunk of a car and transported them across the river to Louisiana, where they were drowned. The Sheriff did nothing to secure the release of the men in the several hours that elapsed between the search and the drowning in Louisiana.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation thoroughly investigated the murders at the time they occurred in 1964. Their investigation included repeated interviews with Franklin County Sheriff Wayne Hutto and an interview with Deputy Sheriff Kirby Shell. At no time did Sheriff Hutto or Deputy Shell ever reveal to the federal authorities that they possessed information that was highly pertinent to the investigation. On July 13, 1964 Hutto was interviewed by the FBI and deliberately misinformed them of the facts. On November 4, 1964, Hutto and Shell were again interviewed by the FBI. Neither disclosed their participation in the events leading to the murders. On November 9 and November 12, Hutto was again interviewed by the FBI, and again failed to disclose his knowledge of the case. On November 6, 1964, when Seale and Edwards were charged with the crimes, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover issued a press release stating that the arrests “climaxed an extensive and lengthy investigation by FBI Agents and local authorities.”

In January 1965, before the charges against Edwards and Seale were dropped, Sheriff Hutto met with the county district attorney to discuss the evidence in the case. He did not reveal the role of his office in the search of the church on the day in question. Such information, if known to the assistant district attorney, would have implicated the Sheriff in the killings and provided critical evidence in the state’s case against Edwards and Seale. After the decedents went missing in May 1964, their relatives sought the assistance of their sheriff, Hutto. On or about May 9 he informed them that they were in Louisiana. On May 16, when the men could not be found in Louisiana, the relatives returned to visit Hutto. The sheriff told them he did not know their whereabouts but that he would try to locate them. That was the last contact the family members had with Sheriff Hutto about the matter. Thereafter, in July, the FBI took charge of the investigation.

This case may allow the families of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore to gain some more closure after decades of  having no redress for their loss, and it could become a model for other victims' families. Involvement by local government in the crimes and their cover up is not unique to the murders of Henry Dee and Charles Moore.

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