Juror recalls trial of Medgar Evers' murderer

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The white supremacist was convicted of the 30-year-old crime in 1994.

Marcia Walker remembers the constant smirk that lined the face of white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith as he listened to the evidence against him.

Thirteen years later, the man's courtroom demeanor remains a vivid memory.

Walker, who grew up in Cape Girardeau, was one of a dozen jurors who in 1994 convicted the bitter segregationist of the 30-year-old murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers.

She sat in the front row of the jury box.

Beckwith wore a Confederate flag pin on his lapel throughout the trial, she said.

"I can just remember his body language and his reaction to some of the witnesses," Walker said. "I don't think he thought he would be convicted."

Beckwith was sentenced to life imprisonment. He died in prison in 2001 of heart problems at the age of 80.

Hoping for a meeting

Walker plans to return to Cape Girardeau this week to attend the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration dinner on Wednesday night at the Show Me Center. She hopes to meet the dinner speaker and civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of Medgar Evers.

"I would be very honored to meet her. I think she is a very distinguished lady," said Walker, who manages a fast-food restaurant.

"I am glad for her that justice was served. I hated that she had to wait for that length of time for justice to be served," said the 45-year-old Walker from her home in Batesville, Miss.

Walker's sister, Becky Wulfers, is seeking to arrange the meeting with Evers-Williams. Wulfers is a clerical worker in the speech and hearing clinic at Southeast Missouri State University.

"That was my idea to begin with," Wulfers said. "I just figured my sister would like to meet her."

Beckwith was convicted of gunning down Medgar Evers, the 37-year-old NAACP field secretary who pushed for an end to segregation. The civil rights leader was murdered outside his home in Jackson, Miss., on June 12, 1963.

Beckwith's fingerprint was found on a deer rifle used to kill Evers. Authorities recovered the rifle in a lot across the street from the shooting. But Beckwith, a former fertilizer salesman, claimed he was 90 miles away in Greenwood, Miss., at the time of the murder.

Beckwith was twice tried in 1964. Both cases ended with all-white juries unable to reach a verdict.

Decades later, prosecutors reopened the case.

His conviction in the third trial came from a jury of eight blacks and four whites. Walker was one of the four whites on the jury.

Walker said the jury deliberated two days before returning a guilty verdict. When the jury first began deliberating, jurors were divided over whether to convict Beckwith, she recalled.

"It was pretty much split," she said. But the division wasn't between black and white jurors. "Even some of the black jurors weren't convinced," she said.

'The whole picture'

Initially, Walker said, she was uncertain at first about whether prosecutors had proved their case.

The jurors painstakingly reviewed the evidence. "We wanted to make sure we were seeing the whole picture," Walker recalled.

In the end, the jurors concluded Beckwith was guilty.

Walker said the fingerprint on the gun was a key piece of evidence. But she also put stock in the testimony of witnesses who said that Beckwith had bragged to them about the killing.

Walker said the jury in Jackson, Miss., was chosen from a pool of 500 prospective jurors from rural Pinola County.

Batesville, which is in Pinola County, is about 150 miles from Jackson, she said.

The jury was sequestered throughout the trial. They were transported by bus to and from the courthouse.

"We were all staying in the same hotel. We ate dinner together," she recalled.

Jurors couldn't read newspapers. "The only thing we got to watch on TV was the Super Bowl," she said.

The trial drew a lot of press coverage. When the jury delivered the verdict, the courtroom was filled. "It was just jammed with reporters," Walker remembered.

Walker said the trial, which was recounted in the movie "Ghosts of Mississippi," has helped to put to rest some of the negative public perception about Mississippi and segregation.

"I think that it proves we can find justice here, too," she said.

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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