ATLANTA (AP) — Seven decades ago, members of a Georgia grand jury heard 16 days of testimony but declared they were unable identify or indict anyone involved in the brazen lynching of two young black couples on a country road. Now a historian is fighting to find out what happened in that grand jury room.
A car carrying the four sharecroppers was stopped by a white mob at Moore’s Ford Bridge, overlooking the Apalachee River, in July 1946. They were pulled from the car and shot multiple times along the banks of the river, a little more than 50 miles east of Atlanta.
The lynching captured national attention, and President Harry Truman sent the FBI to rural Walton County. Agents investigated for months and identified dozens of possible suspects. But a grand jury convened in December 1946 failed to indict anyone in the deaths of Roger and Dorothy Malcom and George and Mae Murray Dorsey.
Anthony Pitch, author of a 2016 book on the lynching, wants the transcripts from the grand jury proceedings unsealed. But the federal government argues that grand jury proceedings are secret and the records should remain locked away.
A federal judge last year granted Pitch’s request to unseal the records, but lawyers with the U.S. Department of Justice appealed. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is set to hear arguments in the case Wednesday.
Roger Malcom, 24, had been jailed after stabbing and gravely injuring a white man, Barnett Hester, during an argument. Witnesses told authorities Malcom suspected Hester was sleeping with his wife.
A white farmer, Loy Harrison, paid $600 to bail Malcom out on July 25, 1946. He was driving the Malcoms and Dorseys home, he told investigators, when he was ambushed by a mob.
Harrison was unharmed and told authorities he didn’t recognize anyone in the mob, which the FBI numbered at 20 to 25 people. An FBI report noted Harrison was a former Ku Klux Klansman and well-known bootlegger. The months-long FBI investigation identified many possible suspects, some merely because they were Hester’s relatives, friends or neighbors, or because they had no alibis. But no one was charged.
When people came forward promising new information in the 1990s, law enforcement revisited the case, but investigators still said they couldn’t prosecute. Then-Gov. Roy Barnes in June 2000 ordered the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to reopen the case. That investigation closed in January, shortly after the FBI concluded its latest review.
Journalists, students, cold case groups and historians hoping to find clues or to coax people into talking have visited the bridge and surrounding towns, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Atlanta, particularly in recent decades.
Pitch was working on a book, “The Last Lynching: How a Gruesome Mass Murder Rocked a Small Georgia Town,” when he petitioned a federal judge to unseal the grand jury transcripts in January 2014.
Government lawyers argued that they weren’t aware of any such records, that they’d likely been lost or destroyed. But even if the records did exist, they argued, they shouldn’t be released because grand jury proceedings are secret.
The government said historical interest does not outweigh the rule that says grand jury material should remain secret.
U.S. District Judge Marc Treadwell in August 2014 denied Pitch’s request, saying there was no evidence that the records existed.
Pitch again asked Treadwell in January 2017 to unseal the transcripts, saying his investigation had determined that the records were held at the National Archives in Washington.
Pitch argued the records appear to be the sole remaining source of information that could enhance the historical record, spur academic discussion and improve the public’s understanding of an important historical event. He cited other historically significant cases in which grand jury records had been released decades later.
Treadwell ordered the government to submit the records to him under seal. In August 2017, he sided with Pitch and ordered the records released.
“Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a more suitable case for the application of a historical exception to the rule of grand jury secrecy,” he wrote.
By KATE BRUMBACK
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