Ex-Klansman guilty in 1964 slayings

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

PHILADELPHIA, Miss. -- Ever since the 1960s, the families of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman have desperately longed for the day when someone would be brought to justice in the deaths of their loved ones.

That day came Tuesday -- 41 years to the day after the three civil rights workers were ambushed by a gang of Ku Klux Klansmen, shot to death on an isolated country road, and buried in an earthen dam.

Edgar Ray Killen, an 80-year-old wheelchair-bound former Klansman, was convicted of manslaughter for masterminding the killings, a verdict of bittersweet justice for the families in a trial that marked Mississippi's latest attempt to atone for its bloodstained, racist past.

The families and prosecutors were disappointed that the jury acquitted Killen of murder and opted for the lesser manslaughter charges. But they also were aware that manslaughter is the strongest conviction ever landed in the notorious case, and that Killen may never taste freedom again. Each manslaughter count carries a maximum sentence of 20 years behind bars; the murder charge carried up to life in prison.

"It's not the perfect ending in this case. I believe we proved murder and I believe he was guilty of murder," District Attorney Mark Duncan said. But he added: "The bottom line is they have held Edgar Ray Killen accountable for his actions."

Cheers could be heard outside the two-story, red brick courthouse in this small town after Killen was convicted in the deaths that helped bring about passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Passers-by patted Chaney's brother, Ben, on the back, and a woman slowed her vehicle and yelled, "Hey, Mr. Chaney, all right!"

Ben Chaney thanked prosecutors and "the white people who walked up to me and said things are changing. I think there's hope."

Killen, a bald figure with owlish bifocals, sat impassively in his wheelchair, an oxygen tube up his nose, as he listened to the verdict. The part-time preacher will be sentenced Thursday.

His wife, Betty Jo, went to her husband with tears in her eyes and hugged him. Killen, in a wheelchair because of a logging accident in which he broke his legs, was surrounded by more than a dozen armed officers as he was wheeled from the courthouse and taken off to jail. He slapped two television microphones and a TV camera on the way out.

The jury of nine whites and three blacks took less than six hours to reach its verdict.

Schwerner and Goodman -- two white New Yorkers -- and Chaney, a black Mississippian were in Neshoba County 41 years ago to look into the torching of a black church and help register black voters during what was called Freedom Summer. The three were stopped for speeding, jailed briefly, and then released, after which they were followed out of town by a gang of Klansmen and killed. Their bodies were found 44 days later buried in a red-clay dam.

Prosecutors said Killen organized the carloads of Klansmen who hunted down and killed the three young men in a case that was dramatized in the 1988 movie "Mississippi Burning."

Prosecutors asked the jury to send a message to the rest of the world that times have changed in Mississippi and that the state is committed to bringing to justice those who committed violence to preserve segregation in the 1950s and '60s.

"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."

Schwerner's widow, Rita Schwerner Bender, said she hopes the case is the beginning, not the end, of Mississippi's efforts to bring justice to victims of crimes sparked by racial hatred. She called it "a day of great importance to all of us," but said others also should be held responsible for the slayings.

"Preacher Killen didn't act in a vacuum," she said. "The state of Mississippi was complicit in these crimes and all the crimes that occurred, and that has to be opened up."

Goodman's 89-year-old mother, Carolyn, said from her home in New York on Tuesday that the real heroes were those who stood up to the hate groups.

"I know a lot of people in Mississippi who have risked their lives," Carolyn Goodman said. "I would say those are the most important people in my life. All the people who have stood up and the victims of the Klan.

"I think most of the people are wonderful down there," said Goodman, who was in Philadelphia last week to testify about her son. "There are a few rotten apples in every barrel."

Killen's lawyers conceded he was in the KKK but said that did not make him guilty. They pointed out that prosecutors offered no witnesses or evidence that put Killen at the scene of the crime. Killen did not take the stand, but has long claimed he was at a wake at a funeral home when the victims were killed.

Defense attorney James McIntyre said he will appeal on the grounds that the jury should not have been allowed to consider the manslaughter charges.

With a murder charge, prosecutors had to prove intent to kill. With a manslaughter charge, they had to prove only that a victim died while another crime was being committed.

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."

Killen was only person ever brought up on murder charges in the case by the state of Mississippi.

Killen was tried in 1967 on federal charges of violating the victims' civil rights. But the all-white jury deadlocked, with one juror saying she could not convict a preacher. Seven others were convicted, but none served more than six years.

The trial moved along swiftly, with testimony over only four days. Many of the witnesses from the 1967 trial are now dead; this time, their testimony was read aloud to the jury from the transcripts.

Witnesses -- primarily Klansmen -- testified that Killen was a local Klan organizer who led meetings where members discussed the "elimination" of "Goatee," as Schwerner was known because of his beard. Witnesses said Killen rounded up carloads of Klansmen to intercept the three men. According to testimony, Killen also told some Klansmen to get plastic gloves and helped arrange for a bulldozer to bury the bodies.

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. Three days later, the 14-year-old's mutilated body was found in a river. Earlier this month, his remains were exhumed and autopsied.

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