The Supreme Court on Monday left in place a judge's ruling that allowed prosecutors to charge a reputed Ku Klux Klansman with kidnapping more than 40 years after two black men were abducted and killed in rural Mississippi.
The justices rejected a plea from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to rule on whether too much time had elapsed for the case against James Ford Seale to go forward.
The action leaves in place a lower court ruling that the statute of limitations had not expired for a federal kidnapping charge against Seale in the 1964 disappearance of two 19-year-old friends.
Seale was convicted in 2007 of abducting the men. Authorities said they were beaten, weighted down and thrown, possibly still alive, into a Mississippi River backwater.
Disagreeing with their colleagues, Justices John Paul Stevens and Antonin Scalia said the high court should have agreed to hear the case because it raises an important issue that potentially affects similar prosecutions. The court did not otherwise elaborate on its order.
The request by the New Orleans-based appeals court indicated that the decision could affect roughly two dozen other investigations into Civil Rights Era crimes. But Chief Judge Edith H. Jones and five other dissenters cast doubt on that number.
In 1964, when the men disappeared, kidnapping was punishable by death under federal law. But in the 1970s, Supreme Court decisions and acts of Congress changed the maximum sentence for kidnapping to life in prison. Capital crimes have no deadline for prosecution, but lesser crimes must be prosecuted within five years.