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  1. Opinion

To get at the truth, unseal grand jury records about a veteran's lynching | Column

George Dorsey fought in World War II, surviving years in the Pacific, but a few months after he returned home to Georgia, he was dead. In 1946, 30 white men lynched him, his wife and another black couple. They dragged the couples to a riverbank then shot them 60 times. The lynching, known as the Moore's Ford Lynching, drew national attention, prompting President Harry Truman to order an FBI investigation.

No one was ever convicted.

A federal grand jury convened, and more than 100 witnesses testified, but the grand jury returned no indictments. How did it indict no one when dozens witnessed the murders? We still don't know. The 1946 grand jury transcripts remain sealed.

Historian Anthony Pitch spent the last six years of his life trying to change that, fighting for a court order unsealing the transcripts. He died last month before his labors bore fruit, but his estate will continue the case, which is now before the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. The case deserves our attention. Lynching is not just part of Georgia's history — more than 300 black Americans have been lynched here in Florida. And as we've learned from the Groveland Four, confronting this legacy of racial terror moves us closer to justice.

THE CASE. While writing a book about the Moore's Ford Lynching, Pitch petitioned a federal court to unseal the transcripts. The U.S. Department of Justice opposed the request, but the court ruled for Pitch. On appeal, a divided three-judge panel of the Eleventh Circuit upheld the ruling, with Judge Charles R. Wilson, of Tampa, writing the majority opinion.

In his opinion, Judge Wilson recognized that grand jury transcripts should usually stay sealed because secrecy "encourages free and untrammeled" witness testimony and "protects the innocent accused." But the Moore's Ford Lynching, he concluded, is an exceptional circumstance. First, it is historically significant. The lynching "is closely tied to the national civil rights movement," and "many consider it to be the last mass lynching in" America. Second, the passage of time has eroded "many of the justifications for continued secrecy."

WHY THE CASE MATTERS. Lynching — and our failure to do justice for the victims of lynching — is a painful but significant part of our past. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, 4,084 black Americans were lynched in the South between 1877 and 1950. And only around 1 percent of the lynchings were followed by a conviction. For most, there wasn't even a trial. Instead, like the Moore's Ford Lynching, a grand jury — acting behind closed doors and leaving only sealed records — quietly declined to indict.

Unsealing the Moore's Ford Lynching transcripts will help expose the forces that have fueled, perpetuated and shielded racial terror in our country. The transcripts will help us understand the community dynamics that led to a mob slaying a soldier who fought for their freedom as well as his wife and two others. They will also help us understand how and why our legal system failed those Americans so miserably.

In Florida, we know the power of shining a light on the legacy of racial terror. Devil In the Grove, a 2012 book about the Groveland Four, had ripple effects across the state.

The Groveland Four (Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Sheperd and Ernest Thomas) were falsely accused of rape in Lake County. A mob then killed Mr. Thomas, and a sheriff shot Mr. Sheperd while he was handcuffed in police custody. All-white juries sent Mr. Irvin and Mr. Greenlee to prison.

Devil In the Grove sparked a statewide dialogue about these events; spurred lawmakers to pass a resolution recognizing the injustices done to the four men; and prompted Gov. Ron DeSantis to pardon them posthumously.

THE WAIT FOR ANSWERS CONTINUES. After Judge Wilson's opinion, answers about the Moore's Ford Lynching seemed imminent. But last month, a majority of the judges on the Eleventh Circuit voted to vacate the opinion and rehear Mr. Pitch's case as a full court.

Why? I'm not sure. It's possible that the judges find persuasive the dissent to Judge Wilson's opinion. The dissent argued that the transcripts should stay sealed in part because releasing them could cause "reputational harm" to still-living relatives of the lynchers and individuals who were identified as Ku Klux Klan members during the grand jury proceedings.

We'll know the judges' reasons when the court issues a new opinion. In the meantime, I'll be following the case closely. We all should. And no matter what happens, we should keep talking about Mr. Dorsey and the Groveland Four. A dialogue about our past moves us closer to justice in the future.

Kevin Golembiewski is a senior associate at Berney & Sang, a boutique civil rights law firm. He is president of the Tampa Lawyer Chapter of the American Constitution Society and previously served as a law clerk to Judge Charles R. Wilson.