James Ford Seale –The Uncertainty Continues

One week ago yesterday, the Supreme Court announced its decision not to hear Seale’s appeal on the statute of limitations issue.  Justices Scalia and  Stevens dissented, arguing in essence that the matter was important, affected other cases, and should be heard and decided once and for all.

So Seale remains in jail, and no one knows what to do about the two dozen other cases. If you investigate and prosecute, you could spend all the time and resources, get a conviction, only to see it later overturned. Or you may wait and decide to see what the Court eventually does on the issue, which could take a couple of years, and meanwhile witnesses and defendants die and cases grow even colder.

The urgency of the matter apparently meant nothing to the seven other justices.  They simply didn’t want to hear the case, apparently wary of setting a precedent that would end up overloading their docket.

So administrative, procedural concerns seem once again to have outweighed concerns that justice, however delayed, be done once and for all the victims of these old race murders.

There may be some truth to the adage that justice is too important a matter to be left to the lawyers.

Publication Day

October 5, publication day for “The Past Is Never Dead,” arrived on the heels of the NPR  “All Things Considered” interview, which played twice on both Saturday and Sunday. I taped the interview on Thursday at the  Colorado Public Radio studio in Denver, and was fairly hyped on caffeine, since I hadn’t slept much the night before. The parts where I talked too much and too fast were mercifully edited out. The interviewer, Guy Ras, had actually read the book, which is not always the case, and I found his questions to be well-thought out and surprisingly focused on the trial itself.  The thirty-minute interview was cut to 7.5 minutes and I thought was edited to make both of us sound like we knew what we were talking about, which is good.

I was a little groggy for an interview on Air America at 5:30 (MT) this morning, but the interviewer, Lionel, was clearly awake and wired. His questions were less about the trial and more about what led up to it. You have to learn to adjust to the interests of the interviewer, but still get your points in, and I’m such a nice guy it’s a little hard to assert myself.

I began Publication Day with a trip to the Tattered Cover, Denver’s famous and much-revered independent bookstore. The book was stacked flat on a table in the new non-fiction area, so I relieved another nearby book of its plastic stand and stood “The Past Is Never Dead” straight up, to look the prospective reader/buyer in the eye. I might need to stop in every day or so and check on its display.

For you Denver people, my signing at the Tattered Cover on Colfax is this Friday night at 7:30. On Sunday, I fly to Jackson for a signing at Lemuria on the 12th, then on to Oxford, for a signing at Square Books on the 13th, which will be taped by C-Span, and finally to Memphis on the 14th for a signing at Davis-Kidd.  I’m glad for an opportunity to talk about the new  book. In this tough publishing world, many authors aren’t touring at all.

No Death Bed Confession

September 15, 2009


Trena McElroy was sitting next to her husband, Ken Rex, in his Chevy Silverado when rifle shots shattered the rear window and exploded her husband’s head onto the dashboard. That was July 9, 1981, and Trena claimed that just before the shots were fired she looked over her shoulder and saw a local cowboy pull a rifle from her pickup and take aim at Ken. She swore to the law and three grand juries that the man on the 30.30 was Del Clement, a member of a prominent ranching family.

When I first traveled to Skidmore in 1982, the first name I heard as the shooter was Del Clement. Over the years I spent there researching “In Broad Daylight” I never heard another name seriously mentioned as the rifleman. Del, a short man with a chip on his shoulder and a hot temper, wore a cowboy hat and drank heavily. It wasn’t hard to imagine him jerking the gun from his pickup in a burst of anger and opening up on the large black head on the other side of the rear window of the pickup. He and his brother owned the D & G Tavern, in front of which McElroy was parked when he died and which had recently begun closing whenever he came to town.

A few years after the book came out, I encountered Del one evening in a bar in nearby Maryville. He was drunk and became outright hostile to me. He pointed out all the untrue facts in the book—such as that he was short—and seemed on the verge of throwing a punch, until a friend stepped in.

There has been no prosecution in the death of Ken Rex McElroy. Some of the witnesses to the crime left town, and as time wore on a few of them died. The only hope for solving the crime seemed to be that one of the witnesses, or maybe one of the killers, would confess on his deathbed in order to clear his conscience. Such evidence is allowed into courts of law as an exception to the hearsay rule on the theory that someone on his deathbed would have no reason to lie.

Del Clement died of liver disease this last spring. He always denied any role in the killing. Dying of sclerosis of the liver is a slow process; it allows the person time to reflect on his life, to prepare to meet his maker. Del Clement died without a word about who shot Ken McElroy.

Ken Rex McElroy