People For the American Way

Trump Judges Deny Access to Grand Jury Records In Unsolved Lynching Case: Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears

News and Analysis
Trump Judges Deny Access to Grand Jury Records In Unsolved Lynching Case: Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears

Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.

In March 2020, Trump Eleventh Circuit judges Kevin Newsom, Britt Grant and Elizabeth Branch in Pitch v. United States of America agreed with the en banc decision to overrule the Court’s more than 40 years of precedent and conclude that district courts do not have the discretion to unseal grand jury records.

Anthony Pitch, an accomplished author of several historical books, was writing a book about the 1946 Moore’s Ford Lynching in Georgia. That year was the first time African Americans were allowed to vote in the Georgia Democratic Primary. Two African American couples were dragged from a car and shot multiple times. The case was considered the last mass lynching in American history. However, no one was ever charged, and despite multiple investigations, the case is still classified as unsolved today.

As additional research for his book, Pitch petitioned the district court to unseal the grand jury transcripts in that case. The district court granted the request. The government appealed to the Eleventh Circuit, asserting that the district court lacked the authority to permit the disclosure of the sealed transcripts.

In a 2-1 decision, the Eleventh Circuit, following its own binding precedent, affirmed the district court’s ruling. The majority explained that generally, grand jury proceedings are kept secret, but explained that  this lynching was of exceptional historical significance, and permitted the district court to exert its discretion to unseal the transcripts. The majority went on to say that some case details in the grand jury record had already been publicized and more than 70 years had passed. These facts lessened the need for the continued secrecy of the transcripts.

The government petitioned the Eleventh Circuit for a full court en banc rehearing of the matter. The judges of the court voted to rehear the case en banc.

For nearly 40 years, the law in the Eleventh Circuit was that district courts have inherent authority to order the disclosure of sealed grand jury records outside of the listed exceptions in the statute. However, the majority of the en banc court, including Judges Kevin Newsom, Britt Grant and Elizabeth Branch, overruled the Circuit’s prior ruling and concluded that the district court did not possess the power to order the release of grand jury records for reasons outside of the exceptions listed in the statute, including in this important case. Consequently, Pitch, the victims’ families, and the many historians, filmmakers and activists who campaigned to expose the truth behind these brutal murders have been robbed of their chance to seek justice.