‘Technicalities’ essential to court operations|OUR OPINION

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 14, 2008

To be a nation of laws is to recognize that words on paper — which is all laws really are — will not always create results that fit our notion of justice.

Last week, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a federal five-year statute of limitations on kidnapping — enacted while repealing the possibility of a death sentence upon conviction of the offense — must be applied to the case of James Ford Seale.

This was immediately termed a “technicality” upon which the much-celebrated conviction of a Mississippi Ku Klux Klansman for 1964 atrocities should not be canceled. And there can be no doubt that when Congress softened the federal kidnapping law in 1972, it didn’t mean to free a killer. The limitation, by the way, wasn’t in effect when Seale and others abducted, beat and hog-tied two black teenagers and shoved them in a Mississippi River slough to drown. And it’s not in effect now.

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But, said the 5th Circuit, the law, as written, cannot be ignored for subjective considerations or selectively applied on a case-by-case basis. Such “technicalities” have many, many times allowed the guilty to remain free because, say, police failed to hew the procedural lines in gathering and processing evidence. “Technicalities” also have worked to shield the innocent. We want perfect justice from our courts, but it remains elusive.

While the law may seem muddled, the facts are clear. Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee, both 19, had done absolutely nothing to merit the Klan’s wrath that led to them being abducted in Franklin County on May 2, 1964. They died horrible deaths and, worse than the acts of the KKK, was the fact that Mississippi’s law enforcement and its courts failed to press the case or take the men suspected of murder to trial. That shame may never go away.

In recent years, both state and federal courts have gone to extremes to win convictions in cases unresolved for more than 40 years. As for Seale, convicted on the testimony of a KKK colleague who was granted immunity, he’s been at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., being treated for cancer, bone spurs and other health problems. So his outlook isn’t that bright. He certainly hasn’t been vindicated.

But the court ruled correctly. The rules have to be the same for everybody.