JACKSON, Miss. - Attorneys said Wednesday they are working to free a reputed Ku Klux Klansman after a federal appeals court overturned the three life sentences he was serving for the 1964 abduction of two black teenagers who died after being beaten and thrown in the Mississippi River.
James Ford Seale, 73, had spent just over a year in prison after being convicted in June 2007 on kidnapping and conspiracy charges related to the abductions of Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee.
Authorities said the two 19-year-old friends were beaten by Klansmen and thrown, possibly still alive, into a muddy backwater of the Mississippi River amid rumors that black residents were planning an uprising.
A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found late Tuesday that the statute of limitations for kidnapping had expired in the four decades between Seale's alleged crime and the federal charges.
Seale was charged after Moore's brother, who was working on a film about the killings, found him in south Mississippi in 2005. The case, which took a backseat to the high-profile search for three civil rights workers who also disappeared in Mississippi that summer, had been cold for years. Many thought Seale was dead.
Thomas Moore said Wednesday he believes the conviction was overturned on a technicality.
"He is not innocent. The community knows it. The world knows it," Moore said. "We are just in the third inning of a nine-inning ball game ... It's not over with."
Matt Steffey, a professor at the Mississippi College School of Law, said federal prosecutors could ask the full appeals court to review the ruling, but it's unlikely the unanimous decision would be overturned.
"Unless something happens, unless new charges are brought against him, or unless lightening strikes and the 5th Circuit reverses this, he'll be a free man," Steffey said.
The ruling probably won't have a major impact on other cold cases from the civil rights era tried in recent years, Steffey said. Most of those defendants were convicted on state murder charges, for which there are no statute of limitations.
Federal prosecutors said they were considering their options. The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division said in a statement that it believes the evidence at Seale's trial proved his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
"The department remains committed to prosecuting racially motivated crimes to the fullest extent of the law, regardless of how many years have passed," the statement said.
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said Wednesday he is reviewing the ruling and declined comment on whether there is enough evidence to charge Seale with murder.
Meanwhile, Seale's attorneys moved quickly to get him out of the federal prison in Indiana where he has been treated for cancer, bone spurs and other health problems.
Kathy Nester, a public defender who represented Seale, said Wednesday that she would seek his immediate release from prison while any appeal is pending. A spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons said how fast an inmate is released after an overturned conviction depends on when paperwork is received.
Margaret Burnham, legal counsel to the Moore and Dee families, said relatives were disappointed but not disheartened.
"The federal government is exploring appeals, and in the meantime the families will consider other options, including state prosecution for murder either in Mississippi or in Louisiana," Burnham said.
Seale and fellow reputed Klansman Charles Marcus Edwards faced state murder charges in the case in 1964, but federal prosecutors said they were quickly thrown out because local law enforcement officers were in collusion with the Klan.
At Seale's 2007 trial, no one who testified who claimed to have seen the killings. The key witness was Edwards, who was promised immunity and testified that he was with Seale when the teens were kidnapped but not when they were thrown into the river. Edwards testified that he and Seale are the only participants still living.
Also potentially complicating a state murder charge are questions about whether the men were killed in Mississippi or Louisiana.
The federal government said it was clear they were driven across a Mississippi River bridge into Louisiana at one point before being dumped south of Vicksburg, Miss.