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Heroes & Spoilers: The Role of the Media in the Prosecutions of Unsolved Civil Rights Era Murders

Janis L. McDonald

Syracuse University - College of Law

October 1, 2008

Ohio Northern University Law Review, Vol. 34, pp. 797-826, 2008

The author is a co-director of the Syracuse University College of Law Cold Case Justice Initiative consisting of volunteer law students, faculty, investigative reporters and family members dedicated to bringing long delayed justice for individuals murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan. This article describes the relative roles played by the black press and the mainstream white controlled press in the early days of the civil rights era and in the current efforts to address these unsolved cases. The author discusses the 2007 federal conviction of James Ford Seale, a member of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi for the kidnapping leading to the deaths of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore in May, 1964. According to the testimony of a fellow klansman who was given full immunity from prosecution Seale and others kidnapped the two nineteen year old black men, tortured them by whipping them for three hours and then carried them across the Mississippi and drowned them in an old tributory of the river. The article describes the comparative silence by the media about the disappearance of these two men as opposed to the three Freedom Summer civil rights workers, two white and one black, who were murdered by the Klan later that summer. In fact, when the Navy Seal divers were dredging the river searching for the three civil rights workers they found some of the remains of Mr. Dee and Mr. Moore, however, the attention returned to the other murders and almost no attention was paid to the deaths of these two young men. After forty-three years, as a result of the efforts of Mr. Moore's brother, Charles Moore, and a documentary film maker from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, David Ridgen, renewed interest in the case by the media led to the prosecution of Seale.

This article identifies some of the powerful ways the media has contributed to reviving unsolved murder investigations and also some of the potential pitfalls of their efforts. Questions of problems leading to a change of venue, the role of "ancient documents", and the use of media exposure as impeachment material are addressed briefly and in the context of the James Ford Seale federal prosecution. As this article goes to press two new events have affected the recent efforts to bring justice to these cold cases. In mid September the United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit reversed the conviction of James Ford Seale based on its retroactive application of a change to the statute of limitations. A decision on a petition for a rehearing en banc is pending. A local prosecution against Seale for murder remains a viable option. Further, the United States Senate, on September 24th, passed the "Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Act" which will allocate ten million dollars a year for the next ten years to the FBI and the Justice Department to focus on investigations and prosecutions of unsolved civil rights era murders that occurred before 1969. In addition two million will be available from the Justice Department to local prosecutors for related murder prosecutions. The Justice Department Civil Rights Service division will receive 1.5 million each year to provide for community outreach in an effort to solve these cases.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 30

Keywords: civil rights, civil rights murders, ku klux klan, cold case justice, media

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Date posted: October 4, 2008 ; Last revised: April 22, 2009

Suggested Citation

McDonald, Janis L., Heroes & Spoilers: The Role of the Media in the Prosecutions of Unsolved Civil Rights Era Murders (October 1, 2008). Ohio Northern University Law Review, Vol. 34, pp. 797-826, 2008. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1276445

Contact Information

Janis L. McDonald (Contact Author)
Syracuse University - College of Law ( email )
Syracuse, NY 13244-1030
United States
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