Flashback: ‘Comeuppance’ for the man behind the ‘Mississippi Burning’ murders

In 20 years as a newspaper reporter, I’ve written a couple thousand articles. But I’ve only typed the word “comeuppance” into a story once.

June 21, 2005 – nine years ago last weekend – was definitely a comeuppance.

I’m not sure why that word came to me while I sat crosslegged with my laptop on the sidewalk outside a coffeeshop in Philadelphia, Mississippi. But never did a word feel so right.

Down the block, a jury had just finished convicting Edgar Ray Killen, a Baptist preacher and former Ku Klux Klansmen, of manslaughter in the Civil Rights-era killings of three young activists: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Their deaths had been immortalized in the film, “Mississippi Burning,” but the accused mastermind of the killings had been a free man in the four decades since that Freedom Summer of 1964.

In one of those eerie quirks of time and history, the jury delivered its verdict on the 41st anniversary of the killings. June 21 was the 50th—half a century since Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were ambushed and shot to death, their bodies hidden in a mud dam.

Killen had boasted about his role in the killing. He’d been a “kleagle” in the Klan, a local big shot, and he’d organized the crew that carried out the executions of the civil rights workers. He’d been arrested for the crime back in 1964, but an all-white jury deadlocked 11-1 on a federal charge that Killen violated the three victims’ civil rights. The lone holdout would later say she could never vote to convict a preacher.

Killen cut a menacing figure during the 2005 trial, scowling at reporters and the audience each day as he was rolled in and out of the Nashua County Courthouse in a wheelchair. He embodied a bygone era of hate and anger. At age 80, he still carried anger inside him. When he was wheeled out of the courthouse after the verdict into a bright Mississippi sun, he took a swipe at one of the television cameras with a heavy hand. There would be no remorse from Preacher Killen on that day. He left the scene as he’d lived: filled with rage.

I remember a reporter asking the prosecutor, Mark Duncan, whether he thought Killen would die in prison. “That,” Duncan said, his voice barely a whisper, “will be up to his maker.”

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal by Killen, who is just nine years into a 60-year sentence. He has marked nine birthdays behind bars with nothing but time to contemplate what he did. That might be the biggest comeuppance of all.

 (This post has been updated.)

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer in The Washington Post’s Style section. His long-form articles span a broad range of subjects, including politics, power and the culture of Washington, as well as profiling major political figures and authors.

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