In a controversial case involving assault and murder, the actions of both law enforcement officers and citizens of Neshoba County, Mississippi, amounted to the wanton execution of three unarmed African-Americans in the same year that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was born.
Having detained the men on grounds unestablished during the appeal, the now defendant Deputy Sheriff released them without charge in the early hours of a June morning, only to later pull their vehicle over on Highway 19, whereupon he removed them from the car and drove them in his own police vehicle, to an unpaved road located off the highway.
It was there that the respondent, along with another seventeen men, two of which included a Sheriff Rainey and Patrolman Willis of the Philadelphia, Mississippi Police Department collectively assaulted, shot and killed the men in cold blood, before removing their bodies to a dam construction site located roughly five miles southwest of Philadelphia, Mississippi.
Upon indictment to the District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, the defendants were charged with direct violations of 18 U.S.C. §§ 241 and 242, which read that:
“(§ 241) If two or more persons conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any citizen in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having so exercised the same….They shall be fined not more than $5,000 or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.”
(§ 242) Whoever, under color of any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom, willfully subjects any person in any State….to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States….by reason of his color, or race….shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both….and if death results from the acts committed in violation of this section….shall be fined under this title, or imprisoned for any term of years or for life, or both, or may be sentenced to death.”
Along with allegations that the assaults were violative of the now-deceased victims’ rights to trial under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
With consideration of the limitations of constitutional statute, and the precedent that such protections were only enforceable between citizens and States, the court held the convictions unlawful and the charges were thus dismissed by a grand jury, after which the United States appealed to U.S. Supreme Court in the hope of greater clarity of judgment.
Tackling § 242 first, the Court noted that while the officers were clearly acting under ‘color of law’ in a literal sense, nothing altered the fact that the same term applied not only to those employed by the State, but to all civilians of the United States, therefore the Court upheld the charges while holding that:
“[T]hey were participants in official lawlessness, acting in wilful concert with State officers and hence under color of law.”
While in relation to § 241, the Court highlighted that in U.S. v. Williams, the Court had held § 241 as inapplicable to the Fourteenth Amendment, however the overall decision came not from uniform judicial agreement, but a single ruling of res judicata, which left the issue of applicability unanswered until now.
It was at this point that the Court held instead, how:
“s 241 must be read as it is written-to reach conspiracies to injure any citizen in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States; that this language includes rights or privileges protected by the Fourteenth Amendment….”
While adding that:
“[T]he State, without the semblance of due process of law as required of it by the Fourteenth Amendment, used its sovereign power and office to release the victims from jail so that they were not charged and tried as required by law, but instead could be intercepted and killed. If the Fourteenth Amendment forbids denial of counsel, it clearly denounces denial of any trial at all.”
After which the Court promptly reversed and remanded the case back to the district court, while reminding the parties that:
“[A] decision interpreting a federal law in accordance with its historical design, to punish denials by State action of constitutional rights of the person can hardly be regarded as adversely affecting the wise adjustment between State responsibility and national control…”