Grand jury records of a 1946 Georgia lynching case will not be released despite their historical significance, according to a federal appeals court in Atlanta.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned rulings from 1984 and 2017 — as well as a ruling in 2019 by three of its own members — Friday, March 27, to say that federal judges could not detour from guidelines in protecting grand jury secrecy. It was an 8-4 decision.
Joe Bell, who has been fighting to solve the nation’s last mass lynching, said he plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I may have suffered a knockdown, but I’m not knocked out,” said the Morris County attorney who has been working pro bono for nearly six years with hopes of discovering who ambushed and murdered two black couples said.
Roger and Dorothy Malcom were riding in a car with George and Mae Murray Dorsey on July 25, 1946, when a mob of white males stopped them at Moore’s Ford Bridge, located in Walton and Oconee counties.
The mob dragged the Black couples to a nearby dirt road by the edge of the Apalachee River and shot them, according to The Associated Press.
In December 1946 the case was brought before a federal grand jury. More than 100 testimonials had been collected by FBI but no one was indicted.
The slayings caused large protests in Washington, D.C., and New York City.
Bell’s interest in the case continued following the death last summer of historian Anthony Pitch, who wrote about the killings in his 2016 book “The Last Lynching: How a Gruesome Mass Murder Rocked a Small Georgia Town” and continued his research after he discovered that the transcript of the grand jury proceedings, once thought to have been destroyed, had been preserved in the National Archives. Bell represented Pitch for years in the historian’s legal fight to get the records opened.
“He’s looking down from a better spot,” Bell said of Pitch. “He’s going to guide me through this.”
In 2017 a federal judge approved Pitch’s petition and ordered the release of the Moore’s Ford grand jury records, but the U.S. Department of Justice appealed, arguing that the secrecy of grand jury proceedings should be upheld.
Citing cases such as those of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the couple controversially executed in 1953 on charges of passing weapons secrets to the Soviet Union, and President Nixon’s Watergate case grand jury testimony, Bell’s argument is that the case holds “exceptional historic significance” that should have outweighed grand jury secrecy concerns.
In his majority opinion, Senior Judge Gerald Tjoflat wrote, “exceptions are spelled out in great detail, and judges do not possess the inherent, supervisory power to order the release of grand jury records in instances not covered by the rule.”
Judge Adalberto Jordan concurred with the majority opinion but said those rules may need to be revisited.
An act known as the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act was passed by Congress and signed into law in January 2019. The law grants the review and release of government records related to unsolved civil rights cold cases.
“It ain’t over till it’s over,” Bell said of the new ruling, “Yes, we will be filing a petition for certiorari with the hopes that the [Supreme] Court takes the case.”