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Court declines to hear 60s cold case

From NBC's Pete Williams
The U.S. Supreme Court today declined to take up the case of James Ford Seale, a central figure in an infamous racially motivated crime in 1964. Today's action leaves his conviction standing. But two justices said the court should have taken the case, because the issue will come up again in other cold cases from the 1960s.

The FBI accused Seale and other Ku Klux Klansmen of kidnapping two black college students in 1964, beating them in a forest, and dumping them, still alive, into the Mississippi River. Seale and another man were arrested at the time, but local authorities declined to prosecute them for killing the students, Charles Moore and his friend, Henry Dee. Moore's brother, Thomas, helped get the case re-opened, and Seale was re-arrested in 2007, this time on federal charges, and later convicted.

When the crime was committed in 1964, a kidnapping that resulted in harm to the victim was punishable by death. And that is true today. But for more than two decades, violating that law was not a capital offense. There's no statute of limitations for crimes that carry the death penalty, but there is for others.  Accordingly, Seale challenged his conviction, arguing that when the death penalty was taken off the books, only a five-year statute of limitations applied to the crime. Once that period elapsed, he could no longer be charged, even though the death penalty was later revived, he claimed.

A federal appeals court disagreed and upheld Seale's conviction, but it urged the Supreme Court to straighten out the law. Today, the justices declined to do so.  But two justices -- the liberal John Paul Stevens and the conservative Antonin Scalia -- said the court should have taken the case. It's an important issue, they said, "that may well determine the outcome of a number of cases of ugly racial violence remaining from the 1960's."