Ex-Klan leader guilty of killings

Manslaughter verdicts in deaths of 3 civil rights workers in ’64

PHILADELPHIA, Miss. – On the 41st anniversary of the killings that came to define their state as an outpost of racial hate, a Mississippi jury Tuesday convicted former Ku Klux Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen of manslaughter in the 1964 deaths of three civil rights workers.

After a 6-6 jury split Monday that had prosecutors deflated over the possibility of an acquittal, a jury of nine whites and three blacks gathered around the bench of Judge Marcus Gordon on Tuesday morning with a conviction of the former Baptist preacher.

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Although the verdict was not the murder conviction that prosecutors sought, the jurors rendered one manslaughter count each for slain “Freedom Summer” volunteers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

“We can’t undo what was done here 41 years ago,” Mark Duncan, prosecutor and longtime Philadelphia resident, said. “At least now, in 2005, the state of Mississippi has done what it can.”

Killen, 80, faces one to 20 years in prison for each manslaughter count when Gordon sentences him Thursday. But Duncan and his co-prosecutor, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, had been arguing for a murder conviction and its mandatory life sentence throughout the proceedings, granting the lesser manslaughter option to the jury only when it entered deliberations.

For a murder conviction, prosecutors had to prove intent to kill. For manslaughter, they had to prove that the victim died while another crime was being committed.

Schwerner’s widow, Rita Schwerner Bender, said the lesser conviction suggested that some on the panel were still unable to accept that pillars of the community such as preacher Killen, local police and politicians once doubled as Klansmen with murderous intentions.

“These were murders that were committed with malice,” said Schwerner Bender, a family lawyer in Seattle who had moved with her husband from New York to Mississippi to join the civil rights movement. “This conviction helps to shed some light on what happened in this state. The light has not come in completely.”

“Forty-one years after the tragic murders … justice finally arrives in Philadelphia, Miss,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi’s only black congressman. “Yet the state of Mississippi must see to it that the wrongs of yesterday do not become the albatrosses of today.”

During the last day of testimony Monday, Killen character witness and former two-term mayor Harlan Majure said the Klan was a “peaceful organization.”

“I know a lot of things about the Klan that a lot of people don’t know. They did a lot of good,” said the former mayor whose terms ended eight years ago.

As the verdict was announced, Killen sat expressionless in the wheelchair from which he has watched the trial because of recent injuries to his legs. For the first time, he appeared before the court with an oxygen tank and catheter affixed to his now well-known face.

After the verdict, Killen’s wife, Betty Jo, bounded from the second row of the public seats of the courtroom to console her husband at the defense table.

“He didn’t get a trial by a jury of his peers,” said Killen’s attorney, James McIntyre. “His peers are long gone. His peers are dead.”

McIntyre said he was considering an appeal based on the prosecution’s late introduction of the manslaughter option. Such an option is usually requested by defense attorneys seeking a lesser penalty for their clients, but it is not unprecedented for prosecutors to seek it as well.

McIntyre, who was a defense attorney for the local sheriff in the 1967 federal Klan conspiracy trial that resulted in a hung jury, said the current jury felt political and community pressure to convict his client this time around.

Juror Warren Paprocki said the jury initially was split.

“On the one hand, this guy needs to be convicted. And on the other hand, the state needed to present better evidence,” said Paprocki, 54, of Philadelphia.

Paprocki said he hopes the conviction will change the way people look at Mississippi. He said the jury of blacks and whites worked well together.

“I saw no racial polarization in (deliberations),” he said. “This is 2005 in Mississippi, not 1964. We are not barefoot and illiterate down here.”

Evidence against Killen was based on transcripts of testimony from now-dead witnesses in the 1967 trial. The living witnesses against Killen included a state convict who testified in his yellow prison jumpsuit and said that at the age of 10 he heard Killen tell his grandfather he had participated in the killings and “was proud of it.”

Also testifying for the prosecution was Mike Hatcher, a longtime police officer in Meridian, Miss., who was briefly a member of the Klan. He said Killen told him a day after the killings that “we took care of the civil rights workers.”

Hatcher testified that Killen also told him where the bodies were buried, how the civil rights workers were apprehended by the Klan and that Schwerner’s last words were, “I understand how you feel, sir.”

But no witnesses testified that Killen explicitly told Klansmen to kill the three workers. Prosecutors said they were hamstrung by the age of the evidence and a culture of silence among old Klansmen and a community still afraid of them.

“It wasn’t a perfect verdict,” Duncan said. “But you have to consider it wasn’t a perfect case, either.”

Killen’s case marked the latest attempt in the Deep South to deal with unfinished business from the civil rights era.

In 1994, Mississippi won the conviction of Byron de la Beckwith for the 1963 sniper killing of state NAACP leader Medgar Evers.

In Alabama, Bobby Frank Cherry was convicted in 2002 of killing four black girls in the bombing of a Birmingham church in 1963 – the deadliest attack of the civil rights era. In 2001, Thomas Blanton was convicted in the bombing.

State prosecutors also have reopened an investigation into the 1955 slaying of Chicago teenager Emmett Till in the Mississippi Delta. Till was kidnapped from his uncle’s home after being accused of whistling at a white woman.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Journal Gazette, USA
June 22, 2005
John Moreno Gonzales
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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday June 22, 2005.
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