The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court announced Monday it would not hear a case stemming from a historian’s efforts to learn about the 1946 lynching of four Black people in Georgia.
In March, the Atlanta-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled by an 8-4 vote that a lower court judge was wrong to release records from the grand jury that investigated the killing of the two Black couples at the Moore’s Ford Bridge in Walton County. Their deaths 74 years ago, for which no one was held accountable, are considered one of the precursors to the civil rights movement.
The Eleventh Circuit majority upended a 1984 precedent, known as Hastings, 735 F.2d 1261, which allowed the release of grand jury records in an “exceptional situation.” Under similar reasoning, courts have released grand jury transcripts in historically significant cases, including those involving Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, President Richard Nixon and union leader Jimmy Hoffa. In 2017, Judge Marc Treadwell of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia said the Moore’s Ford Bridge lynching qualified as an exception, too.
In 2019, a three-judge panel of the Eleventh Circuit voted 2-1 to uphold Treadwell’s ruling. But the en banc ruling from March voided that decision.
Lawyers for the wife of the historian, who has since died, and another historian who renewed the requests for the records were Joseph J. Bell and Paul W. Armstrong of Bell & Shivas of Rockaway, New Jersey.
Bell emailed on Monday afternoon that he was “deeply saddened that the Court missed a historic opportunity to correct a horrible injustice.”
The historians could rely on a new law, the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act of 2018, which allows a review board to authorize the release of records from cases such as the Moore’s Ford Bridge lynching.
Bell said he plans to apply to the cold case commission to see the records or ask for a rules change with the federal courts committee that govern criminal procedure. “When a door closes somehow a window will open,” he said.