Grand jury proceedings are secret. Ask any first-year law student.
But a veteran lawyer from Morris County is pressing a judge in Georgia to make an exception.
Joseph Bell wants to see grand jury testimony from 1946. He thinks these transcripts — unearthed last year after going missing for decades–finally may solve what’s been called America’s last mass lynching.
“After 71 years, no one’s been brought to justice, and that’s the real injustice,” said Bell, a former Morris County Clerk who practices law in Rockaway.
“This is my goal, to get these records released. Then we might actually piece together the mystery of what happened in 1946.”
What happened in Walton County, GA, on July 25 of that year was so savage that President Harry Truman, responding to national outrage, established the President’s Committee on Civil Rights.
A mob of unmasked white men ambushed two black couples near the Moore’s Ford Bridge.
George W. Dorsey — a World War II veteran recently back from five years serving in North Africa and the Pacific– and Roger Malcolm were dragged from a car and lashed to a hefty oak tree.
Malcolm’s wife Dorothy recognized someone in the mob and pleaded for her husband’s life. She and Dorsey’s wife, Mae Murray, were seized, too.
And then all four were shot multiple times at close range.
“This story revolted me,” said Anthony Pitch, an expert on the Lincoln assassination whose 11 nonfiction books include The Last Lynching: How a Gruesome Mass Murder Rocked a Small Georgia Town.
Such records have been released in cases of “historical significance” involving President Nixon, Alger Hiss, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, and Jimmy Hoffa, Bell noted in a legal argument he presented to U.S. District Judge Marc T. Treadwell in Macon, GA, this spring.
Judge Treadwell has not yet ruled on Bell’s petition.
Pitch, a British ex-pat, is a former journalist and broadcast editor for the Associated Press. He has appeared on C-Span, the History Channel, PBS and NPR, among other places, discussing his books about epic, real-life horror stories, from Lincoln’s killing to the British burning of the White House to the Holocaust.
The subject of lynchings in America held a similar morbid fascination for him; he found the Georgia slaying of a war veteran particularly sickening.
“Here’s a guy who put on the uniform of his country, and risked his life, and had to face the enemy. And he comes back and is treated like a serf. And they do him in,” said Pitch, 78.
A STABBING, A SHOOTING…AND SILENCE
A couple of weeks before the lynching, Roger Malcolm had been arrested for stabbing a white farmer during a fight.
J. Loy Harrison, who employed the Malcolms and Dorseys as sharecroppers, drove them to jail to post a $600 bond. The car was besieged as they were returning to Harrison’s farm.
Harrison watched the brutal scene unfold. Yet he told authorities he could not identify the killers, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, which has documented nearly 4,000 lynchings in a dozen Southern states between 1877 and 1950.
“It’s pretty obvious to any objective outsider that [Harrison] was the ringleader,” said Pitch, who estimates he combed through 10,000 unclassified documents while writing The Last Lynching.
A grand jury heard three weeks of testimony, in a case widely believed to involve the Ku Klux Klan. Nobody ever was indicted.
“The FBI chief of the investigation told J. Edgar Hoover that many on that grand jury were lying; some were related to the people testifying,” Pitch said.
Most, if not all, of the guilty have carried their grisly secret to the grave, despite sporadic efforts by public officials and law enforcement to crack the case.
For years, an African American state legislator in Georgia staged re-enactments of the lynching on its anniversary. State and federal authorities started pursuing new inquiries around 1991, according to Bell. The state of Georgia officially reopened the case in 2000, and FBI investigators dug up property in Monroe County, GA, in 2008.
Two years ago, FBI agents questioned Charlie Peppers, then 86. Peppers was implicated by his nephew, Wayne Watson, in a video interview with the NAACP. Peppers denied any involvement in the killings, which occurred when he was 18.
“Back when all that happened, I didn’t even know where Moore’s Ford was,” he told the Guardian newspaper.
Sifting fact from fiction in this shocking story has tested Pitch’s skills as a journalist and historian. Some accounts have claimed the mob cut a seven-month-old fetus from Dorothy Malcolm’s body.
“It’s a lie, a fantasy, a hallucination,” said Pitch, asserting that an autopsy by a black coroner contained no references to any pregnancy of the victim.
‘TILTING AT A WINDMILL’
For decades, civil rights activists were frustrated by another strange element of the case: The grand jury transcripts were believed lost, misplaced or destroyed by a 1972 flood in Athens, GA.
When Pitch discovered the documents in the National Archives in Maryland last year, Bell renewed his legal quest. Judge Treadwell had dismissed the matter in 2014, but he left the door open to revisit it if the records ever turned up.
“I think the grand jury transcripts will be the final chapter of the mystery,” said the 69-year-old Bell.
It’s an epilogue Pitch is determined to write. His gut tells him the records will be revelatory. “I really think it’s going to be dynamite,” said the author, who views Bell as a heroic figure in this tragic saga.
Bell completed his law degree at Seton Hall while serving as Morris County Clerk in the 1980s, and added a degree in labor law from New York University. His clients include Morristown’s public employees union. Civil rights cases also are part of his practice.
He’s hoping the Moore’s Ford grand jury records “will shed light on a dark corner” of the nation’s past.
Righting wrongs is why he wanted to be a lawyer in the first place.
“Every once in awhile as an attorney, you can tilt at a windmill,” Bell said.