PHILADELPHIA, Mississippi (Court TV) — A lawyer for the 80-year-old Baptist preacher accused of masterminding the Ku Klux Klan killings of three civil rights workers in 1964 conceded to a jury Wednesday that his client belonged to the racist group.
But the attorney insisted that the defendant was a low-level member with no control over the Klan’s activities.
“Edgar Ray Killen was just a bystander in the same organization that a lot of other people were in at the same time and in the same place,” the lawyer, Mitchell Moran, said in his opening statement.
He suggested that higher-ups in the organization, including a county sheriff, now dead, and an Imperial Wizard, serving life in prison for another civil rights era murder, were more culpable. He told jurors that no matter how “repulsive” they found the Klan’s views, “The Klan is not on trial. Being a member of the Klan is not on trial.”
On Thursday morning, jurors are to begin hearing testimony in the case, perhaps the final murder trial to revisit a civil rights era killing. At the close of jury selection Wednesday, much of which was conducted behind closed doors, Circuit Court Judge Marcus Gordon opted not to identify which 12 of the 17 jurors are on the panel and which are alternates, saying he wanted them all to pay attention.
The panel includes 13 whites and 4 blacks. Later, after media speculation about the possibility of an all-white jury, the court said there were three black jurors on the actual jury.
Killen, confined to a wheelchair by a logging accident, appeared pleased with the panel. After his lawyer showed him the final list, he smiled and flashed an “OK” sign to his wife and stepson in the audience.
Killen faces a life sentence if convicted in the shooting deaths of James Chaney, 21, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24, on June 21, 1964.
Role as organizer
The judge allowed lawyers only 15 minutes each for their opening statements and state Attorney General Jim Hood struggled to cram four decades of American history and complicated case developments into the allotted time.
He said Killen was a Klan kleagle, or recruiter, who was among a number of preachers who used the pulpit to draw men into the organization.
“They told them that God sanctioned this,” Hood said.
He said Killen had told other Klansmen that the state Klan was arranging Schwerner’s murder and that, when a Neshoba County sheriff arrested the three on trumped-up charges, Killen quickly gathered up a posse to “eliminate” them.
“They started working the phones, trying to get six or seven people,” Hood said, adding that Killen instructed the men to bring plastic gloves.
Hood acknowledged that Killen did not shoot the men himself and was in fact miles away attending a wake when the murders occurred, but he said Killen’s role as organizer made him just as guilty as those who fired the guns.
Hood and Neshoba County District Attorney Mark Duncan, who took the lead in jury selection, told jurors repeatedly that they should only concern themselves with Killen, not the fates of other men involved.
Eighteen men were tried for federal civil rights charges in 1967. Seven were convicted, and eight acquitted. Three others, including Killen, walked free because jurors could not agree on their guilt.
Mocking the idea that Killen, a part-time preacher and sawmill operator, was a Klan “godfather,” Killen’s lawyer implicated two of his co-defendants in that case, Sheriff Lawrence Rainey and Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers. Rainey was acquitted in the 1967 trial and has since died. Bowers was convicted at the federal trial and is now serving a life sentence for murder of civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer. He is a potential witness for the state.
A moment in history
Jurors will be sequestered in a hotel throughout the trial. After opening statements, they filed out in the company of court officers who were to escort them to their homes to pack for a trial that could last two weeks.
The trial is unfolding in an atmosphere of intense security. Armed federal, state, county and local officers guard the courthouse, and J.J. Harper, a Georgia Klansman who attends some proceedings in the company of another white supremacist, wore a bullet-proof vest under his cowboy shirt to court.
Also, Gordon told jurors the court would provide their “food, care and protection.”
“We will have security for you,” he said.
Lawyers drew the jury from a pool of nearly 200 panelists. Many were excused because they said they had unshakable opinions about the case, which has haunted Neshoba County for 41 years. One man removed by the judge Wednesday wrote on his jury questionnaire that either he or someone in his family was a member of the Klan. Asked on the questionnaire how he felt about the prosecution of Killen, he had written, “Bull. Been too long a time.”
The judge, a stern 72-year-old who grew up in the same small community as Killen, lectured the jurors to ignore everything but the evidence as they decide the case.
“Just let the chips fall where they may. You are not obligated to anyone,” he said. He added, “What we are doing and what we have done will be recorded in the history of Neshoba County.”
When the case is over, he said, “We should be proud of what we have done.”
Schwerner’s widow, Rita Bender, and her husband, Bill, and Chaney’s brother, Ben, sat in the front row of the courtroom. Goodman’s mother, Carolyn, is expected to be an early witness in the trial.
Among those in the spectator’s gallery for opening statements was Roscoe Jones, who worked with Schwerner in Meridian in 1964, when he was a 17-year-old member of the NAACP Youth Council.
“Mickey firmly believed the youth were going to be the backbone of the movement,” said Jones, now 58.
Looking toward Killen, he said he considered the defendant “a foot soldier” for larger forces in state government and law enforcement who wanted to preserve segregation.
“As far as I’m concerned, Killen is not on trial,” he said. “The state of Mississippi is on trial.”
We appreciate your support
Our website includes affiliate links, which means we get a small commission — at no additional cost to you — for each qualifying purpose. For instance, as an Amazon Associate Religion News Blog earns from qualifying purchases. That is one reason why we can provide this service free of charge.