(CNN) -- A federal appeals court overturned the kidnapping conviction of a reputed Klansman in connection with the 1964 deaths of two black teenagers in Mississippi.
James Ford Seale, a former sheriff's deputy, was convicted in June 2007 of kidnapping and conspiracy to commit kidnapping in the disappearances of Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee, both 19.
On Tuesday, a three-judge panel from the Fifth Circuit Court Appeals sided with Seale's claim that he should have never been tried in connection with the teens' deaths because a five-year statute of limitations on kidnapping-related offenses had expired.
"The more than 40-year delay clearly exceeded the limitations period," Judge Harold DeVoss wrote in the panel's ruling. "While we are mindful of the seriousness of the crimes at issue, we cannot abdicate our duty to faithfully apply a valid limitations period."
The ruling brought a surprise turn to a case that the FBI once trumpeted as an example of its efforts to close cold cases from the civil rights era.
"Today's indictment is one example of the FBI's strong and ongoing commitment to reexamining and investigating unsolved civil rights era murders and other crimes," FBI Director Robert S. Mueller said after Seale's indictment was announced in January 2007. "Under our Cold Case Initiative, we will continue to identify and pursue these cases of racially motivated violence to ensure justice is served wherever possible."
Seale was not tried for murder, but prosecutors alleged he and fellow Klansmen conspired to abduct, beat and murder Dee and Moore in May 1964. An indictment accused the Seale and his cohorts of picking up the two men hitchhiking and driving them into the Homochito National Forest in Franklin County, Mississippi, where the teenagers were beaten and interrogated at gunpoint.
Dee and Moore were then bound with duct tape, weighted down by an engine block and railroad rail. They were still alive when they were thrown into the Old Mississippi River, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Their decomposed bodies were found two months later during a search for three missing civil rights workers that would later be known as the Mississippi Burning case.
Seale and another man, Charles Edwards, were arrested in the slayings in 1964, but released on bond and never tried. The FBI turned the case over to local authorities, and the case was dropped after a justice of the peace said witnesses had refused to testify.
The cold case was revived in 2007 when Moore's brother discovered Seale was still alive during a visit to Franklin County to help research the case for a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary.
Thomas Moore told CNN in January 2007 that he gave the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi FBI files on the case, which he had obtained from a Mississippi reporter.
U.S. Attorney Dunn Lampton helped form a task force that led to Seale's indictment. Seale was the first and only person convicted in the Moore and Dee murders, the Justice Department said.
Since then, other notable cold cases from the civil rights era have also gone to trial. In 2005, Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of manslaughter for his role in the Mississippi Burning case.
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