The families of two black teenagers killed by Klansmen in 1964 are suing Franklin County, saying the county's sheriff at the time helped cover up the crime.
On May 2, 1964, Klansmen abducted and beat Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore, both 19, in Franklin County before dumping them into the Mississippi River, where they drowned.
Meadville lawyer Bill Halford, who helps represent Franklin County, said he could not comment on the lawsuit because he had not seen it.
Last year, a U.S. District Court jury convicted James Ford Seale - one of the men involved - on federal kidnapping and conspiracy charges. The 72-year-old former Klansman is now serving three life sentences at the Federal Correctional Institution in Terre Haute, Ind.
The federal lawsuit is the first known lawsuit brought by family members against a county involving these unpunished killings from the civil rights era since cases began to be reopened in 1989. It was filed this week in U.S. District Court in Jackson.
"This is a case about unconscionable crimes and unconscionable deception," the lawsuit says. "It is also about systematic denial by Franklin County of law enforcement protection to African Americans and whites suspected of opposing the Klan's campaign of racist terror. It is a case about the collusive and unlawful relationship between the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and Franklin County."
The families are seeking damages for the county's role for "flagrant violations" of the teenagers' constitutional rights, including their wrongful deaths.
The lawsuit also cites other Franklin County violence from that time, including the June 21, 1964, beating of Burl Jones inside the Sheriff's Department by two men wearing Klan hoods and the Aug. 15, 1965, killing of Earl Hodge, who was reportedly beaten to death by a Klansman.
According to the lawsuit filed Tuesday, then-Sheriff Wayne Hutto and his chief deputy, Kirby Shell, conspired with those involved in the abductions and killings of the teenagers.
The lawsuit says Hutto misled the families about what happened to the teenagers. Moore's brother, Thomas, has said the sheriff reassured his mother that her missing son had merely gone to visit relatives in Louisiana.
The family learned the truth July 12, 1964 - when authorities fished their decomposed bodies from the muddy river. Family members would not comment Wednesday.
The families say it wasn't until 2007, when they read the indictment against Seale, that they learned Hutto was an unindicted co-conspirator in the case.
Although Hutto and Shell are now deceased, "they hid this for a long time," said Margaret Burnham, one of two nationally renowned civil rights lawyers involved in the case, the other being Charles Ogletree.
According to testimony given by former Klansman Charles Edwards, the two teenagers were tied to trees and beaten repeatedly with bean sticks because Klansmen wrongly believed black residents were smuggling guns into Franklin County.
Finally, Edwards said, one of the youths declared there were guns in the nearby Roxie First Baptist Church. He said he and other Klansmen stopped the beatings.
Shell and highway patrolman Mason Seale supposedly went to get the church's pastor, the Rev. Clyde Briggs, who unlocked the church. Edwards said Hutto and others assisted Klansmen in the search.
According to the lawsuit, Hutto and Shell knew the information about the alleged guns had come from Dee and Moore, who were being held in the Homochitto National Forest.
When no guns could be found, the angry Klansmen returned, and the beatings continued.
Klansmen loaded Dee and Moore into the trunk of a Ford and drove to a section of the Mississippi River, where the teens were bound and gagged before being weighted down and thrown in the river.
After the jury left one day, Edwards apologized to the families - an apology the families accepted.
Normally a lawsuit couldn't be brought for a case that old, Burnham said.
What makes this case different from other unpunished killings is it can be proven Franklin County law enforcement played a role in the cover-up that concealed what really happened from the FBI and others, she said. "Our case is unique because the evidence county officials were involved was not available until 2007. Other cases don't stand in the same position."
Unlike the state of Mississippi, the county cannot claim immunity, she said. "There's no immunity for a county."
The reason the county can be sued, she said, is because the sheriff serves as the county's law enforcement representative.
Edwards' attorney, Max Graves of Meadville, said he believes it would be difficult to objectively assess what happened back then under a lens from today. "I can't imagine a civil suit now," he said. "I'll let somebody else deal with that one."
He described those days in the early 1960s as "the Ross Barnett era."
He recalled the 1962 football game in Jackson where the University of Mississippi played Kentucky. Confederate flags waved as then-Gov. Barnett declared his love for Mississippi and its customs, which at that time included the barring of James Meredith as a black student from Ole Miss.
When news came that Meredith would be admitted to Ole Miss, hundreds swarmed onto the campus and a riot ensued, killing two.
Graves wonders why Hutto didn't tell what he knew about the search of the church and its connection with the killings.
He said he can't imagine Hutto standing in a pasture, dressed in a Klan robe. "He was highly respected."