As attorneys in federal appeals court in Atlanta on Wednesday argued precedent and law, Atanya L. Hayes started to heat up.
The matter before the court — the release of grand jury testimony in the Moore's Ford lynching case — is a deeply personal wound from 72 years ago that forever changed the course of Hayes' family. Her grandfather, Roger Malcolm, was among four black people who were shot and killed by a white mob in Walton County in a case that drew national attention. No one was ever charged.
At one point, Hayes pulled out a hand fan and quietly waved it to cool herself off during the proceeding where the Justice Department argued to keep the records sealed.
“I got hot,” Hayes said later. “I got angry about it.”
It will likely take months before the panel of three federal court of appeals judges — James L. Graham, Adalberto Jordan and Charles R. Wilson — issue an opinion on whether the grand jury transcripts from the 1946 federal case should be made public.
Historian Anthony Pitch has been waging his court battle for several years to gain access to the 1,500 pages of transcripts that could shed light on the unsolved case and the grand jury proceeding — records customarily kept secret.
Attorney Joseph Bell, arguing on behalf of Pitch, said everyone involved in the case is deceased. He said the transcripts are significant to understand a horrific event that shook the nation.
“All the victims were shot multiple times with pistols and shotguns,” he said during Wednesday’s oral arguments. “They were shot over 60 times.”
The panel of judges listened and challenged both sides with questions, offering little to suggest how they would rule. A federal district judge in Macon rendered a judgment in 2017 in favor of Pitch and the release of the records. The Justice Department appealed the case, which set the course for the appeal that unfolded inside a stately, wood paneled courtroom at Elbert P. Tuttle United States Court of Appeals Building downtown.
“It’s been so long what would be the harm?” Judge Wilson asked attorney Brad Hinshelwood, who is representing the Justice Department in its effort to block the release.
The government’s argument is that the 2017 decision by the district court overstepped the court’s authority to release secret grand jury testimony. A federal rule restricts release of grand jury information with few exceptions and historical interest is not one of the provisions outlined by the rule, according to the government’s argument.
If the rule was amended to include such records, the government would not oppose release of the Moore’s Ford transcripts, according to its brief filed in the case.
Prosecutors often argue that the grand jury process would be harmed if witnesses fear testimony will become public, making witnesses less cooperative.