Early Drama in Civil Rights Trial

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 17, 2005

PHILADELPHIA, Miss., June 16 -- Marcus Gordon, the small-town judge overseeing the trial of a country preacher accused of orchestrating three of the most infamous killings of the civil rights era, told jurors Thursday to "expect the unexpected."

And that is exactly what they got.

Even before the first witness was called, relatives were rolling the defendant -- Edgar Ray Killen, 80 -- out of the courtroom in his wheelchair. He left the building on a stretcher.

Killen, who broke his legs in a wood-cutting accident three months ago, was driven by ambulance to a hospital, where doctors diagnosed elevated blood pressure and ordered him held overnight for observation.

The emergency-room trip brought the trial of Killen, accused of directing the 1964 "Mississippi Freedom Summer" killings of three civil rights workers, to a jolting stop. It also stirred emotions in a town already palpably ill at ease with the unearthing of the sins of another era.

Outside the courtroom, Fannie Lee Chaney, whose son, James Chaney, was one of the three civil rights workers, told reporters that she suspected Killen staged the illness. As word spread about his abrupt departure, so did the aura of suspicion.

"That man's playing possum," said a hotel valet, who asked that his name not be disclosed because of the emotions surrounding the case in this town of 7,000.

The suspicions were dismissed by Patrick Eakes, the Neshoba County General Hospital emergency-room director who treated Killen and said he appeared to be "on the up and up." Eakes said Killen is in stable condition and characterized him as "alert and pleasant." Earlier, Killen's defense attorney had described him as "semi-coherent."

Killen's age and health have always been issues of contention in the case. His attorneys considered asking for dismissal of the case because of Killen's age. They asked for the trial to be delayed earlier this month, saying he was unable to sit for long periods of time because of his injuries. The judge denied the request but did arrange for a nurse to accompany Killen to court. Gordon also ordered a hospital bed placed in a back room, not far from the courtroom.

The tableau of the aging defendant in the courtroom is one of the most striking, and most enduring, images in a decade that has seen more than a dozen white supremacists convicted of civil-rights-era murders in the South. Elderly witnesses have wheeled oxygen tanks into courtrooms to accuse defendants of decades-old crimes, and court cases have been delayed or complicated by the health of defendants.

Killen's trip to the hospital meant that he was not in the courtroom for the wrenching testimony of Rita Bender, the widow of Michael Schwerner, a 24-year-old civil rights worker who was killed with Chaney and Andrew Goodman just outside this Mississippi town.

Bender told jurors about her furtive life with Schwerner in Mississippi as they tried to register blacks to vote and build community centers in 1964, of how they shuffled from one rented home to another because their landlords were constantly threatened for associating with them. In Meridian, Miss., they lived in an apartment with no running water, she said, and would slip through a back door at a black-owned hotel to shower each morning.

Bender, a slight woman with short-cropped gray hair, choked back tears as she spoke. Soft sobbing from the audience filled the empty spaces while she regained her composure.

In 1964, she told jurors, she and Schwerner were attending a training session in Ohio when they heard about the mob beating of members -- including elderly members -- of a black church in Philadelphia where Schwerner had recently given a speech. Feeling responsible because his presence had incited Ku Klux Klan animosity, Schwerner rose from their bed in the middle of the night intent on going back to Philadelphia to investigate, she said.

"He kissed me goodbye and then left . . . that's the very last time I saw him," Bender said.

Days later, her husband's charred station wagon was found and, she said, "it really hit me for the first time that they were dead."

During the weeks-long search for the three bodies, she sought out then-Mississippi Gov. Paul B. Johnson, who was meeting with Alabama's segregationist governor, George Wallace, to ask him to find out where the bodies were.

Johnson "chuckled," she said. Bender wanted to say more, but defense attorneys objected and the judge cut her off.

Outside the courtroom, she told the rest of the story. Johnson looked at her, she recalled, and said: "Only Governor Wallace and I know, and we're not telling."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company