Appeals Court Set To Weigh In On Request To Access Testimony From Lynching Cold Case
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
An unsolved lynching, decades old, got a new hearing this week in federal court in Georgia. At issue is when, if ever, should judges be able to unseal grand jury testimony. Those records are usually sealed and kept secret. But if a judge were to release them, it could lead to some justice in the case. Grant Blankenship of Georgia Public Broadcasting explains what happened at a place known as Moore's Ford.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I want to make sure everybody is up here.
GRANT BLANKENSHIP, BYLINE: Once a year, people come to Monroe, Ga. - not far from the college town of Athens - to watch a crime.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: If you make your way up the hill, you can see the first scene.
BLANKENSHIP: In this reenactment, a well-dressed white man with a fuming cigarette waves down a car on the road crossing the Apalachee River.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: Get him out of the car.
(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)
BLANKENSHIP: With more white men, he forces four black people - two couples - out of the car.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: What are you doing? He been in jail. They're taking him to court. What are y'all doing?
BLANKENSHIP: On July 25, 1946, the mob probably wanted Roger Malcom. He'd already been in jail for stabbing a white man. But by the end of this, the 15th annual reenactment and the lynching at Moore's Ford Bridge, spectators will see how Malcom's wife Dorothy, her brother George Dorsey and his wife Mae Murray Dorsey were also murdered.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And cut. Can everyone just go move that way?
BLANKENSHIP: The crime made national headlines. Over the course of a grand jury investigation, the FBI interviewed over 2,000 people - almost half of the county in 1946. A hundred people testified before the grand jury, but not a single indictment was handed down. Darius Bradshaw has portrayed Roger Malcom for several years. By now, there's only one thing left he wants to know.
DARIUS BRADSHAW: I want to know exactly who did it.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Hold on just a little while longer.
BLANKENSHIP: The answer might be in the grand jury records. Historian Anthony Pitch and his attorney Joe Bell have fought to unseal those records for years, most recently before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. But on the morning of the reenactment, Bell tells a crowd in the First African Baptist Church of Monroe that preparing for that hearing got a little more complicated.
JOSEPH BELL: Most unfortunately, Anthony Pitch passed away about three weeks ago.
BLANKENSHIP: Bell had to find a new plaintiff who could still make sense of it all. He told the church he had someone.
BELL: Another author, Laura Wexler, wrote a book on the Moore's Ford tragedy, as well.
BLANKENSHIP: Laura Wexler published her book "Fire In a Canebrake" in 2003, and she's spoken to Bell, and she's prepared for the grand jury records. But...
LAURA WEXLER: Do I think there's going to be a smoking gun in this? I don't know. I mean, I really don't know.
BLANKENSHIP: What she could learn is how people who knew things in 1946 but who kept quiet helped sustain a system that tolerated murder.
WEXLER: We would look to the entire system as both the cause for an incident like this and then the protection for those who perpetrated it.
BLANKENSHIP: When Joe Bell argued this week before all 12 judges in the circuit court, he said the time for justice was overdue. And no one, neither the U.S. attorney nor the judges, seemed to want to hold on to the grand jury records. But they aren't Bell's yet. He says something else is at work.
BELL: We're in the throes of a dilemma, where you have to separate whether or not this is a cold case or whether the courts have the inherent authority to release the records of the grand jury transcript.
BLANKENSHIP: If the court decides judges can release grand jury testimony, the effect could ripple far past this case. Still, Bell says he expects justice in the Moore's Ford lynching someday and maybe even someday soon.
For NPR News, I'm Grant Blankenship in Macon, Ga.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.