Verdict in Mississippi Fails to Douse Burning Embers

Originally posted: June 24, 2005

Greencastle, Ind. – When my friend Jim Concannon learned I was going to Mississippi to cover the trial of the three murdered civil rights workers, he said, “Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney. That case is like laundry hanging out of America’s suitcase.”

He is right. This was unfinished business for the country, especially for Mississippi and most particularly for Neshoba County, where the murders took place. Last week in Judge Marcus Gordon’s courtroom was part trial, part exorcism. In his closing argument, District Attorney Mark Duncan told the jury that for 41 years, “It’s been Edgar Ray Killen and his friends who have written the history of Neshoba County. You can either change the history Edgar Ray Killen and the Klan wrote for us, or you confirm it.”

Again and again that theme resonated from the courthouse to the editorial pages of state and national newspapers. As much as this small-town preacher and sawmill operator was on trial, so were the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Testimony revealed how deeply the Klan had penetrated the churches and law enforcement authorities of Mississippi. Preacher Killen was the chief recruiter for the Klan in this part of the state. He described the organization as a white, Christian, patriotic organization, anti-communist and pro-segregation. Killen told his new initiates they weren’t joining the Boy Scouts; there might be some rough work, beatings, church burnings and maybe even “elimination.”

In the jury box was an authentic collection of Neshoba citizens, a mixture of ages, men and women, black and white, laborers and professionals. Essentially, the defense attorneys told the jurors it was not their job to ease the reputation of racial injustice from the county and the state, nor was it to render a verdict about the Klan. An 80-year-old man in a wheelchair breathing through oxygen tubes was on trial for three murders. Edgar Ray Killen and only Killen was their job.

In closing arguments, defense counsel James McIntyre gave the jury a set of bullet points reflecting the reservations I heard expressed in conversations with locals at the gas station, the vegetable stand, the pawn shop and in letters to Mississippi newspapers.

He attacked the news media. “This is a case to pull back the curtains for the TV cameras,” McIntyre said, adding, “The news media has already found Killen guilty. Every story is slanted.”

He cast doubt on the prosecution’s case and its motives. “The state has hired a consultant to help pick a jury that will find Killen guilty,” he charged. Also, he noted that all the informants who testified had taken money from the FBI. “If you pay for it,” McIntyre argued, “you get the testimony you bought.”

Finally, no one ever placed Killen at the scene of the crime or even suggested he fired the shots. Why, if there are seven others still living who were involved with this event, did they selectively prosecute only Edgar Ray Killen? McIntyre leaned into the jury box and whispered: “Because he is a preacher.”

McIntyre was aiming to deadlock the jury and in the first vote, 6-to-6, it seemed he had done his job. This jury was not prepared to convict a man for murder just to alleviate the collective guilt of Neshoba County and Mississippi.

The tipping point in the case came when the prosecution team asked the judge to allow a finding of manslaughter as well as murder: “in case jurors believe the Klansmen didn’t initially intend to murder the three civil rights workers.” And the jury chose manslaughter, a negligent act, not purposeful.

Hearing the evidence and arguments on both sides, it is hard for me to conclude that Edgar Ray Killen was guilty of anything but murder. He assembled the lynch mob; he laid out the plan; he passed on the order from the Grand Wizard for “elimination;” he located the burial site and found a bulldozer operator to shovel the bodies into the graves; he even instructed his Klan cronies to buy rubber gloves for the wet work ahead. Trial testimony was strong and unrefuted on all these points. Is this not pre-meditation?

Still living are those seven other Klansmen who were involved in the murders on June 21, 1964. All were offered immunity to testify in this trial. The attorney general told them to be witnesses today or defendants in the future. All continued to stonewall. One consequence of this verdict is the strong probability that none of them will ever be prosecuted.

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