Ex-policeman charged over 1964 killing of black teens

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A former sheriff's deputy and alleged member of the Ku Klux Klan has been charged over the killing of two black teenagers more than four decades ago - one of the very last of the civil rights-era cases authorities are likely to seek to bring to justice.

James Seale, 71, once believed to be dead, appeared in court in Jackson, Mississippi, yesterday morning where he was charged over the deaths of the two 19-year-olds who were beaten, tied to weights and then thrown alive into a river. Their remains were found several months later by federal authorities who were hunting for the bodies of three civil rights workers who were also murdered by members of the Klan.

According to a three-page indictment laying out the accusations, Mr Seale and several accomplices abducted Henry Dee and Charles Moore as the pair were hitchhiking near an ice-cream stand in the town of Meadville in south-west Mississippi and drove them to Homochitto National Forest. There they allegedly beat the teenagers with tree branches, questioned them at gunpoint and bound them with tape.

Mr Dee was apparently tied to an engine block from a car while Mr Moore was tied to iron weights from a railroad track. Both men were then thrown into the Mississippi river. "It was a horrible crime committed with stunning disregard for the victims," said the FBI director Robert Mueller.

When the case was initially investigated, Mr Seale and another suspect were arrested. But the FBI ­ perhaps distracted by the "Mississippi Burning" case involving the deaths of three civil rights workers ­ passed the case to the local authorities and a judge promptly threw out the charges.

For many years, Mr Seale's family told reporters that he was dead. But two years ago Mr Moore's brother, Thomas, and a Canadian filmmaker discovered he was still alive and living in rural Franklin County, close to the scene of the crime.

Thomas Moore put pressure on federal authorities to reopen the case. Mr Seale was arrested on Wednesday.

Yesterday, he was charged with two counts of kidnapping and one count of conspiracy to commit kidnapping. The Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, said authorities had decided to proceed with these charges rather than murder after examining all the available evidence. He declined to say why an alleged accomplice of Mr Seale's was also not charged, though reports said that the man ­ a church deacon now aged 72 ­ has been co-operating with authorities.

In court in Jackson, Mr Seale pleaded not guilty to the charges. The court ordered he be held in custody until Monday when a bail hearing is scheduled to take place. His court-appointed lawyer said his client was suffering from cancer.

The case is the latest in a flurry of crimes and killings dating from the civil rights era that authorities have belatedly sought to prosecute.

In recent years, they have secured convictions against two former Klan members, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry, for the murder of four black girls killed in the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, and Edgar Killen, for the murder of the three civil rights workers in 1964. Killen, a former Klan recruiter, has appealed against his conviction.

Penny Weaver, of the Southern Poverty Law Centre, a civil rights and anti-racism group, said: "It's extremely important [that these cases are brought to trial]. All you have to do is look at the comments of the family members. It's a great relief. They are overwhelmed... by a sense that after all these years someone is taking their loved ones' deaths seriously."

Anthony Collins, the grandson of Thelma Collins, the sister of Henry Dee, said his grandmother had for decades suffered from depression over the death of her brother.

He told The Independent: "Right now, she is happy that there is going to be some resolution. It's been a long time trying to make sure justice is served."

Thomas Moore, a brother of the other murdered man, said: "I'm very satisfied at this point ...I never thought it would happen. I never forgot my brother or Henry Dee."