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CHASING JUSTICE IN THE NEW SOUTH

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

First in an occasional series.

June 18, 2002|RICHARD A. SERRANO | 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.

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.

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