“[We thought] we was gonna see them get beat up,” Adams said with a rueful laugh during a 2017 interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution where he recounted the scene. “It wasn’t funny after that.”
Adams, 10 years old at the time, didn’t come forward with his account for more than 40 years; parts of his claim have been supported and disputed in the decades since, AJC reports. If Adams saw what he claims to have seen in 1946, he would be the only living witness to what is now widely considered “America’s last mass lynching.”
From archival news accounts and court records, this much is certain: Four black residents — Roger Malcom, 24; his 7-months-pregnant common-law wife, Dorothy Dorsey Malcom, 20; her brother George Dorsey, 28, and his wife, Mae Murray Dorsey, 24 — were pulled from a car that summer evening, bound, beaten and dragged to a clearing along the Apalachee River. The couples were shot more than 60 times at close range by an all-white mob.
Public records leave frustratingly little for investigators to pursue today. In the aftermath of the lynchings, the surrounding community refused to cooperate; four days after the crime, William J. Spence, the head of the Georgia State Police at the time, told the Associated Press that state officials had hit a “stone wall” in the investigation.
“We have talked to a lot of people and got nowhere,” Spence said. “We think we know who some of the members of the mob are, but we can’t prove it.”
Even after the FBI investigated at the behest of President Harry S. Truman, the case remained a mystery. In six months, the FBI subpoenaed more than 100 witnesses and conducted nearly 2,800 interviews. The effort failed to yield a single confession, let alone an indictment.
Seventy-three years later, the unsolved crime is now at the heart of a federal appellate court trial over grand jury secrecy.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit heard arguments that pit the historic significance of secret grand jury records — ones the plaintiffs argue could help shed light on the unsolved case — against the government’s interest in preserving the confidentiality it argues is critical to maintaining the integrity of a powerful judicial tool.
Transcripts from weeks of grand jury investigation in 1946 were thought to have been lost or destroyed until the late historian and author Antony Pitch discovered them in the National Archives, according to Joseph Bell, who is representing Pitch’s estate. A federal judge in Georgia agreed to unseal the records in 2017, but the Department of Justice appealed the decision. A three-judge panel from the 11th Circuit upheld the ruling, but the decision was later vacated when the full bench of 12 judges decided to hear the case.
The day after the hearing, Bell told The Washington Post it was hard to tell how the judges might rule, but noted they seemed concerned their “inherent supervisory authority” could be undermined by what’s known as “Rule 6,” guidelines in the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure that establish the rule of grand jury secrecy.
Bell said the justices further implied that while they could affirm the lower court’s decision and unseal the transcripts, the plaintiffs could pursue the material under the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act, a 2018 law that in some cases permits the release of criminal investigations records for alleged civil rights violations that took place between 1940 and 1980.
Juliet Sorensen, a professor at Northwestern Law who spent seven years as an assistant U.S. attorney, said grand jury secrecy is crucial to the presumption of innocence and due process — such as cases where someone is investigated but no indictment is produced. The government also has an interest in preserving grand jury secrecy to help protect the integrity of a grand jury investigation, she said.
The set of circumstances for which grand jury information may be unsealed is small. When a grand jury participant goes on to testify at an actual trial, their grand jury testimony may be unsealed for the purposes of a cross-examination; it can also happen when a defendant alleges impropriety in the grand jury investigation or when an outside court — such as a foreign government, military tribunal or Native American tribal court — requests the grand jury information for a prosecution. A 1984 ruling by the same appeals court that’s deciding the current case established precedent for judges unsealing grand jury records in “exceptional circumstances” — which the court did not define.
“If this isn’t an exceptional circumstance, what is?” Sorensen said of the Moore’s Ford lynching materials. “It’s now 73 years in the past. Surely, no targets of the investigation are still living. I don’t believe that granting the release of the records in this case will open the door to courts ordering grand jury record disclosures willy-nilly.”
Proponents of the unsealing point to some of the details of the lynching that have been unclear for years, including the lynching’s possible ties to then-Georgia Gov. Eugene Talmadge (D) and the Ku Klux Klan. News reports at the time and court files at the very least establish a firm timeline of the events.
Loy Harrison, a wealthy white landowner, was driving the couples home from the Walton County Jail. Earlier that day, Dorothy Dorsey Malcom had convinced Harrison, her boss, to post bail for Roger Malcom, who had been in jail for 11 days for allegedly stabbing a white man during a dispute. In exchange, Malcom, a World War II veteran, would work on Harrison’s farm. A second couple — Dorothy’s brother and sister-in-law, who also worked for Harrison — accompanied her.
Harrison would later tell investigators after the lynching that a dozen cars and at least 20 men blocked his path as he neared the Apalachee River; the mob pulled Malcom from the car and said, “we want that n-----.” Harrison, who was considered an early suspect in the case but never indicted, said that while none of the men wore masks, he couldn’t identify anyone. Harrison was identified in a later FBI report as a former Klansman; civil rights activists at the time alleged he bailed Malcom out to hand him over to the mob.
All but the youngest adult suspects and witnesses would be more than 100 years old today; more recent probes into the case by the FBI and Georgia Bureau of Investigations have determined any likely eyewitnesses have died. Investigators are left to parse accounts heavily based on rumors and hearsay as firsthand memories of the unsolved crime fade with each year.
Atanya L. Hayes, the granddaughter of Robert Malcom, is eager to know the details of how an entire town fell silent in the wake of her grandfather’s murder. Her father was only 2 when Malcom died, and Hayes, 49, said she heard only “bits and pieces” about what happened to him growing up. Her father carried a photo of her grandfather around in his wallet, but rarely spoke of him.
Learning the truth of how her grandfather died as an adult left Hayes feeling frustrated — and angry.
“It made me really disappointed in our judicial system and FBI and all the people who were supposed to protect us,” Hayes told The Post. She argued the truth, which she hopes the grand jury transcripts could reveal, is more important than protecting the feelings of any descendants of guilty parties who might feel shame or embarrassment on behalf of their relatives.
“You should not be able to enjoy that good reputation,” Hayes said. “Dead or alive, good or bad, [the truth] needs to be known.”