Monday, September 15, 2008


In 1964, two Mississippi teenagers, Charles Moore and Henry Dee were kidnapped and murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. James Ford Seale was arrested shortly after the bodies were found, but prosecutors judged there was insufficient evidence to convict him and did not file charges. A conspiracy of silence prevented his prosecution until 2007, when an elderly KKK member told the story in exchange for immunity. Seale was prosecuted 43 years after the crime occurred for the offense of kidnapping. He was convicted and sentenced to two life sentences.

On September, 9, 2008, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the conviction. The Court found that the five year statute of limitations had run long before the prosecution was commenced, and that the case was barred. Commenting on this action, Juan Williams, one of my favorite correspondents for National Public Radio, said that witnesses “stonewalled local officials and even congressional committees by claiming their Fifth Amendment right.” He commented, “It’s just frustrating to see [the case] overturned on a technicality.”[1]

I remember, around the time of the murders of the teens, going with my father to a meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana, in support of Dr. Martin Luther King’s march in Selma, Alabama. I did a fifth grade research project on the civil rights movement. I have been fighting racial discrimination and violence most of my life. I have no sympathy for Mr. Seale, nor do I condone the negligence and inaction of prosecutors in this matter.

But when we start talking about “technicalities,” I say, the Statute of Limitations is not a technicality. Nor is the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. Here’s what the Fifth Circuit had to say about the purpose of the statute of limitations in the Seale opinion:

[C]riminal limitations periods “provide predictability by specifying a limit beyond which there is an irrebuttable presumption that a defendant’s right to a fair trial would be prejudiced.” United States v. Marion, 404 U.S. 307, 322 (1971); see Toussie v. United States, 397 U.S. 112, 114-15 (1970) (“Such a limitation is designed to protect individuals from having to defend themselves against charges when the basic facts may have become obscured by the passage of time and to minimize the danger of official punishment because of acts in the far-distant past.”)

Or, as the Supreme Court put it in United States v. Kubrick, 444 U.S. 111, 117 (1979)

These enactments are statutes of repose; and although affording plaintiffs what the legislature deems a reasonable time to present their claims, they protect defendants and the courts from having to deal with cases in which the search for truth may be seriously impaired by the loss of evidence, whether by death or disappearance of witnesses, fading memories, disappearance of documents, or otherwise.
It is true that the Fifth Circuit spent a lot of its opinion deciding which statute of limitations applies to Mr. Seale, since the law of limitation has changed several times in the 43 years since Moore and Dee were killed. Maybe that’s what makes Juan Williams think the case turns on a “technicality.” But statutes of limitations are an important part of the framework of laws which protect all of us from an overzealous justice system. In this case, they protect us from having to explain where we were on a particular afternoon 43 years ago, something that an innocent person would likely find quite hard to do.

So, although I would like to see Mr. Seale receive the consequences of what he did 43 years ago, I am not willing to sacrifice the rule of law to that end. Nor was the Fifth Circuit: “While we are mindful of the seriousness of the crimes at issue, we cannot abdicate our duty to faithfully apply a valid limitations period.” Had the Fifth Circuit abdicated that duty, this would have been a particularly egregious example of that other maxim, “Hard cases make bad law.”

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