Allowed to leave prison while conviction appealed
PHILADELPHIA — An 80-year-old Klansman convicted of orchestrating the killings of three civil rights workers in 1964 left the Neshoba County Courthouse a free man Friday after posting a $600,000 bond.
Greeted by his wife and friends, Edgar Ray Killen emerged from the Neshoba County Detention Center wearing his cowboy hat and wouldn’t speak to reporters.
While the courtroom was packed with his supporters, others showed up to oppose his bond, including Jewel McDonald, a member of the Philadelphia Coalition that pushed for justice in the case. “Anybody that has caused the deaths of three people doesn’t deserve bond,” she said.
Mississippi has won praise for Killen’s conviction. Now she worries the bail will undo all that, she said. “We’ve just gone back 41 years.”
Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon said Friday he had little choice but to grant an appeal bond to Killen, convicted of manslaughter in the June 21, 1964, killings of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. “Bail is a matter of right,” the judge said, pointing out state law says unless a person is convicted of felony child abuse or murder, he is “entitled to bond.”
Gordon — who sentenced Killen to 60 years in prison — said the state had simply failed to prove the sawmill operator posed a flight risk or a danger to the community as required under the law. He said he can’t treat Killen any differently than those who have already come before him or who will come before him in the future.
District Attorney Mark Duncan said the state plans to appeal and asked for a stay until the state Supreme Court can rule on the petition, but Gordon denied the request. The judge said the transcript is nearly complete, and the high court should be able to take up Killen’s appeal within a year.
Duncan said he’s confident Killen’s conviction will be upheld: “His day will come.”
The Neshoba County circuit clerk’s office said the following helped Killen post bond: his brother, Bobby, Frank Richardson, Ray and Jean Hamil and Henry and Marcia Bassett. Henry Bassett testified Friday he didn’t believe Killen posed a danger to flee or a threat to the community.
Several dozen friends and family packed one side of the courtroom to Killen and warmly greeted him after the judge gave him bond. Asked what he thought of Killen’s release, Henry Bassett replied, “I’m not the judge. We have an almighty judge. I’m going to go with God’s laws.”
Schwerner’s widow, Rita Bender of Seattle, said Killen getting bond “conveys that race crimes are still not understood with the seriousness they deserve.”
While the statute says defendants are entitled to appeal bond, it also says the judge can deny bond on the basis of “the nature of the crime,” she said.
Goodman’s mother, Carolyn, said she hopes Killen survives long enough to serve time in prison once his appeals are concluded.
Killen’s release causes people “to feel pain one more time,” said Alvin Sykes of Kansas City, who heads the Emmett Till Justice Campaign that helped reopen the Till case.
Sykes acknowledged Killen’s release on bond is part of the judicial process. If Killen had been convicted of murder, he said, this wouldn’t have been an issue.
Sykes has suggested legislation U.S. senators are now pushing to create a cold cases unit within the Justice Department to pursue crimes of the past
On Friday morning, deputies wheeled Killen into the courtroom, where he saw a sea of supporters. Dressed in a yellow jail jumpsuit that said Neshoba County, Killen appeared cheerful, smiling and waving to family members and friends.
Defense lawyers called seven of those friends, who testified they believed Killen posed neither a flight risk nor a danger to the community.
The state plans to appeal and requested a stay until the Supreme Court could rule on the petition, but Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon denied the motion. He said the transcript is nearly complete and the court should be able to take up Killen’s appeal within a year.
While swearing to tell the truth, Killen used his left hand to hold up his right. He testified he has been losing use of his right hand and has had to feed himself with his left hand.
Killen, who sat Friday in a wheelchair, broke both legs in a tree-cutting accident in March. “My head got knocked flat by a falling tree,” he said. “They (doctors) were amazed I’m conscious.”
He complained about a lack of medical care at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Rankin County but acknowledged he’d been seen by doctors. “They checked me through the line like a cattle auction,” he said. “I’m very unhappy with the treatment I’ve received.”
He told Gordon he is in constant pain and the cot he rests on has injured the pins in his leg. “I can barely sleep,” he said. “I still don’t understand how I could lie in severe pain for 24 hours, and no one even bring me an aspirin. I’m not a drug addict.”
He complained about being unable to have a pillow. “I know the court is not going to like this, but I bribed a black convict, and he got me one out of the trash can,” he said.
Department of Corrections officials denied Killen’s claims of poor care. “As far as I know of I think that he’s received the best medical service that’s possible out there,” said spokesman Nic Lott. “I don’t know of any complaints from Mr. Killen or his family.”
On Friday, the prosecution called two jailers who testified about a remark Killen made.
When asked by jailers whether he had any suicidal thoughts, the part-time preacher told them, “I’ll kill you before I kill myself,’ ” Neshoba County jailer Kenny Spencer testified.
Fellow jailer Willie Baxter corroborated his account, and both testified they believed the remark was a threat.
Asked about the remark, Killen replied, “I didn’t make the comment.”
But if he did, he said, “It’d have to be joking. I don’t do those things.”
If Killen did level a threat, it wouldn’t be the first time. In 1975, a Newton County jury convicted him of making a threat over the telephone.
Duncan introduced Killen’s indictment and conviction to show Killen poses a threat. He quoted from Killen’s threat: “That son of a b—- will be dead by 8 o’clock. … I like revenge.”
After that conviction in 1975, Killen called and threatened the jury foreman, according to a Newton County official.
Duncan argued Killen has shown a pattern of behavior throughout the years of threats and inciting violence. “He has essentially gotten to be free of bond for the past 40 years, and it’s time for him to start serving the sentence.”