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A Brother Who Won’t Forget, a Prosecutor Who Won’t Give Up

TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEADVILLE, Miss.--Ronnie Harper was born in Mississippi, graduated from Ole Miss, and for 10 years now he has served as the district attorney in this southwest pocket of the state.

But until the letter landed on his desk four years ago, he had never heard of two young black men named Charlie Moore and Henry Dee nor the pair of white cousins many believe got away with killing them.

The letter came from a retired Army sergeant in Colorado. He had just read about convictions in the notorious 1998 dragging death of a black man in Jasper, Texas, and wanted to know why no one had been made to pay for the murder of his younger brother, Charlie, and his friend nearly 40 years ago.

Their deaths were just as savage. Picked up while hitchhiking in Meadville, the 19-year-old college students were driven to a nearby national forest, tied to trees and beaten repeatedly with bean sticks. Still breathing, they were tied to an old Jeep engine block and pushed into the Old River near Vicksburg.

Harper was astonished that he had never heard of the case. When he went to the county sheriff’s office, he came upon his second surprise: There were no records of the murders.

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It is now an open, active investigation again. Harper convinced the Mississippi attorney general’s office, the state highway patrol and the FBI to take a fresh look at what he came to realize was one of his state’s cruelest moments.Yet the justice that wasn’t delivered then won’t come easy now.

In recent years, a handful of white men have been convicted in slayings of blacks in the 1960s, raising hopes in other long-dormant civil rights cases. The most recent was last month’s conviction of Bobby Frank Cherry for his role in a Birmingham, Ala., church bombing that killed four black girls nearly 40 years ago.

Across the South, at least 11 such cases, including the killings of the two young Mississippi men, are in various stages of review--some driven by eager prosecutors, others by family members or guilt-ridden witnesses nearing death themselves.

But for all the hope generated by the higher-profile cases, there are scores of unsolved, race-driven killings of blacks that never will be resolved, never get a second look--not to mention those that never got a first look.

And even the relative handful of old cases that are being revived appear to have slim prospects for successful prosecution. Witnesses and suspects die, paperwork is lost, evidence is thrown out. And in the 1960s, the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacy groups often intimidated sheriffs and prosecutors, preventing competent investigations and thus dooming efforts to resurrect the cases decades later.

Moreover, “the law is not often well-equipped to redress old wrongs,” said Vanzetta Penn McPherson, a federal magistrate in Montgomery, Ala., who was a high school sophomore when dynamite exploded at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963.

“The most the law can do is to declare rights,” McPherson said. “But as far as restoring rights, after all these years, it is very difficult to do that.”

Justice in the Old South sometimes depended less on the law than on the ability of prosecutors to overcome the burden of the times. Harper’s search for justice in Mississippi pits him against the legacy of a long-ago predecessor, Lenox Forman, who had a partial confession in hand yet never carried the matter to trial.

Forman was either a coward--as a former police chief calls him--or a realist who understood that, even with strong evidence, persuading a jury to convict whites of killing blacks in that racially charged time was extremely difficult.

Forman evidently had at his disposal a chilling, apparently eyewitness account of the attack and other details by FBI informants that leave little doubt about the ugliness of the crime.

The two victims had been home from college for a while, working as laborers. They were last seen May 2, 1964. That summer, parts of their bodies were found by a fisherman; Moore was identified by the belt buckle his brother had given him.

Before the year was out, two white men, cousins Charles Marcus Edwards and James Ford Seale, were arrested, based on a partial confession by Edwards about what had happened in Homochitto National Forest.

Forman promised a grand jury investigation, but there is no evidence that a jury was convened and no indictments were returned, even after the FBI was tipped that local Ku Klux Klan members were boasting about the double slaying.

In a secret report, the FBI credits one reliable, confidential informant who told agents of “the murders of two colored males by the names of Moore and Dee.”

According to the document, Seale “was heard to state” that he and a friend picked up the young black men in Seale’s Volkswagen.

Seale and his friend told the hitchhikers that they were government revenue agents hunting for bootleg whiskey stills, and then drove them into the Homochitto forest. A pickup carrying accomplices followed.

There, Moore and Dee were “tied to a tree and were beaten severely with bean sticks.”

Seale demanded the men tell what they knew about black agitators, including black Muslims with firearms, who supposedly were heading to southwest Mississippi.

Moore and Dee said they knew nothing. But, the report said, “James Seale and others kept beating the Negroes until one of them finally said the guns were in a church. And it appeared this had probably been said by one of the Negroes to stop the beating.”

The white men laid down the sticks, wrapped the near-dead black youths in a piece of plastic tarp and drove toward the Old River.

A couple of days later, some men were bragging at the local Amoco station that they “had put two niggers in the river,” the informant told the FBI. But they also were worried that the serial number on the Jeep engine block used to weight the bodies might give them away if the bodies were recovered.

They were so worried, in fact, that “they had been having difficulty sleeping at night.”

There also was the possibility that the victims had survived. “Both Negroes were alive when pushed over the side of the boat,” one source told the FBI.

Even after their torsos were pulled to the surface, “Seale was extremely nervous. He was heard making the statement that he himself had put the tape over the wrists and mouths of both the Negroes and that he, James Seale, was afraid his fingerprints were still on the tape or on the underneath side or sticky side of the tape.”

Edwards was equally frightened. He told another FBI informant that he had “a bad case of conscience,” was afraid his wife would talk too much, and that, if anything happened to him, he wanted the Klan to “raise his kids and support his wife.”

But it was not all sweat and worry. At one point, they thought it amusing enough to tell friends not to “dip water and drink it out of the river” unless they wanted to be “drinking water off a dead Negro.”

The informants’ statements prompted a judge to issue murder warrants, and Edwards was arrested at 5:30 on a November morning when Mississippi Highway Patrol investigators, accompanied by FBI agents, knocked on his door in rural Meadville. Two hours later, at patrol headquarters in Jackson, Edwards admitted he was acquainted with Dee but “initially denied” knowing Moore, according to the highway patrol’s report.

Finally, Edwards said a group of blacks, including Dee, had been “peeping” in the windows at his wife. Edwards said he, Seale “and some others” then went out and picked up Dee and “this other Negro.”

“Edwards stated that they took the two men to some woods and whipped them and that the two Negroes were still alive when he left,” the report said. “He stated he did not know what happened to them and declined to identify the others present.”

Seale also was arrested. But the investigation stalled when authorities could not establish who owned the recovered engine block, and both men were released from jail Jan. 12, 1965--the same day the FBI report was dated and sent to Washington.

Forman formally dismissed the charges in the “interest of justice.” He did not elaborate.

But a week earlier, Forman told other law enforcement officials that the case had reached a dead end.

“He did not feel that sufficient evidence exists at this time to either have a hearing or to present this matter to a grand jury,” the FBI report said. “He expressed the belief that if more evidence could be developed, to strengthen the case, particularly evidence implicating other potential defendants, that it would be more advantageous to present the matter to a grand jury at a later date.”

That date never arrived.

*

Forman died in April at age 92. His detractors in Mississippi say he was afraid to take on the Klan.

“He didn’t have enough guts,” recalled J.T. Robinson, the former police chief of Natchez, the largest city in Forman’s--and now Harper’s--district.

His supporters, however--and there are many--argue that such cases often were hopeless even with overwhelming physical evidence.

“There have been suggestions before that he soft-pedaled some of his cases,” said U.S. District Judge David C. Bramlette of Biloxi, who in the 1960s was a defense attorney in this part of the state.

“But he was a fine man. And any attempt to cast aspersions on him would be misplaced. He was a very ethical, very fine prosecutor.”

Forman’s son, Rick, a lawyer at the state Capitol in Jackson, said his father would have dearly loved to prosecute Edwards and Seale. But, he said, “the Klan was very, very influential.” His father often called home to make sure his mother had locked the doors.

“And it was next to impossible to get them to talk. But my father never, ever would have purposely dismissed the case. That was not in his nature, not the way he was.”

Harper now confronts the same long odds. Time has not been kind to a case that much of Mississippi has forgotten.

He is missing witnesses because many are long dead or are so old they can no longer remember important details.

He is missing police files because local authorities did not save paperwork or have much of a filing system, he said.

He also is missing one of the two key suspects; Seale died last year. That leaves Edwards.

“You’re talking to the wrong man,” Edwards said recently, and with that, quickly ended an interview about his past.

Natchez lawyer William F. Riley, who defended Klan members in the 1960s, said of Edwards: “That boy Charles is a darn nice fella. They would be wasting their time to indict him. He’s well-liked.”

As for Seale, his son, James, said: “He was a good man and a good father. I was a small kid when all that went on.

“But I think they made a mistake, the law did, by arresting them. And they turned them loose and let them get on with their lives.”

Echoing a widely held view here, he added, “Whatever happened in Mississippi, they ought to let laying dogs lie.”

Edwards and Seale flaunted their freedom.

In January 1966, the House Un-American Activities Committee called both men to Washington, along with many other Klan leaders. They were summoned to testify in a congressional investigation into illegal Klan activities, and the lawmakers confronted them with sheriff’s reports identifying them as prime suspects in the double slaying.

Reporters crushed around them and flashbulbs went off. Some of the Klan members leaned back in the soft-cushioned chairs and smoked cigars; they seemed to be having a high old time.

Edwards would say only that he lived in Meadville, had completed the 11th grade and worked at a paper mill. He refused to talk about his Klan activities or Moore or Dee or his alleged confession, which was read into the record.

Seale would state only his name and spell it, and say that he had been served a congressional subpoena at a United Klans of America rally in Liberty Park in Natchez.

That was nearly four decades ago, and until the letter from Colorado crossed Harper’s desk, all was silent.

*

Thomas Moore was in basic training when his brother, Charlie, was killed. He went on to serve two tours in Vietnam and make a 30-year career in the Army, retiring as a sergeant major, the highest rank an enlisted man can attain. Today he counsels troubled youth in his community in Colorado Springs. He is 58; his brother would have been 57.

“They destroyed my whole family,” he said. “Mama never did recuperate. She lived 13 years from the day she put him in the cemetery and then left me by myself. Yes, I’m angry. And it’s still going on. I’m still seeing the injustice go on. And I can’t stop it.”

Some years ago he bought a .30-.30 rifle and seriously thought about returning to Mississippi to hunt his brother’s killers.

“You’ve got to understand that I was a young man there, and the two of us raised by Mama on welfare,” he wrote in the letter to the Mississippi prosecutor. “Without a dad. He died when I was 2 years old.

“And when that happened in 1964, I had just got drafted, in April. I was in basic training. Then they finally found his body and I wanted Mama to leave Mississippi. I would show them what it was all about. Finally she had to make me promise that I would let God take care of this.”

Harper will not say much about where the case is headed, or if he is gaining ground. He said someone might be feeling some guilt out there, maybe facing their own mortality, and might find the courage to come forward.

Because part of the assault occurred in a national forest, there is potential federal jurisdiction too, so a state-federal investigation is underway.

“It’s pretty apparent it was racially motivated,” Harper said. “And there’s no statute of limitations on murder. A life--two lives--should not be taken without anybody paying a price.”

Thomas Moore continues to wait. But he finds some satisfaction that Harper has taken up where Lenox Forman left off.

“I’ve brought it back,” he said, “to the doorstep of Mississippi.”


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