Jury Evenly Split in Mississippi Murder Case
Tuesday, June 21, 2005
PHILADELPHIA, Miss., June 20 -- Jurors formed a semicircle around the judge overseeing the trial in the infamous 1964 killings of three civil rights workers and announced Monday that they are deadlocked 6 to 6, casting a sense of despair over a courtroom packed mostly with prosecution supporters.
A pair of women in the audience who probably would not have sat together in public in this small town at the time of the killings -- one white, one black -- shook their heads. Tears welled in the white woman's eyes and she began to sob; the black woman, Dolores Barnes, gritted her teeth.
"Same as it is all over Mississippi," Barnes said moments later, her eyes flashing in anger. "They don't have repentant hearts."
After two hours of deliberations on the day before the 41st anniversary of the slayings, the jurors' pronouncement -- they are to resume deliberating Tuesday -- is only an early indication of their thinking about the murder and manslaughter charges against Edgar Ray Killen, an 80-year-old former Ku Klux Klan leader. Still, the jury's even split had many here considering the possibility that the case could end in an acquittal or a mistrial. Southern prosecutors have had remarkable success over the past 15 years resurrecting civil-rights-era cases, and a failure in this case -- which was the subject of the movie "Mississippi Burning" -- could be a serious blow to efforts to reopen other cases from the 1960s.
All the cases have their peculiarities, but the prosecution's jury consultant, Andrew Sheldon -- who has worked on several of the most high-profile cases in the past decade -- noticed one glaring difference about the Killen case. Some prospective jurors in almost all the cases have said during jury selection that the defendant was too old or the cases were too old but did not appear to actually mean it. In the Killen case, Sheldon said, "it seems like people really felt that."
The jury's announcement overshadowed the biting back-and-forth of closing arguments in a trial that has, at times, resembled a sterile historical inquest. At one point, Attorney General Jim Hood -- an emblem of Mississippi's present -- stalked across the courtroom well, his right index finger poking toward Killen -- an emblem of Mississippi's past. The young attorney general, barely more than half the age of the defendant, stopped two feet short of the defense table, his finger still rigidly extended.
"That's not the Mississippi I grew up in," Hood, 43, said, his face reddening as he pointed to Killen. "That's not the Neshoba County I know."
Killen, who did not testify at his trial on charges of murdering civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in 1964, glared back and let out a loud, unintelligible retort.
Hood, who reopened a case that his predecessors had refused to resurrect, wants the jury in Neshoba County Circuit Court to exorcise the ghosts of Mississippi's violent opposition to integration by bringing them into the light. "The skeletons of our past have names and faces," he said, holding up photos of the three slain civil rights workers.
Killen's attorneys want the ghosts left in the past. "This is nothing but stirring a simmering pot of hate for profit and cultural sluggishness," said defense counsel James McIntyre. "What this does is nothing but pick up the old problems and bring them forward so we can have our differences again."
Killen, who requires a wheelchair after breaking his legs in a tree-cutting accident three months ago, took notes or stared unflinchingly at the jury while his attorney spoke. But during parts of the prosecution's closing arguments, Killen appeared to drift off, sitting with his head cocked to the right and his eyes closed for long stretches.
During the breaks, he was more animated, receiving well-wishers with a broad, gap-toothed smile as they reached across the railing for a chance to shake his hand. "I'm pulling for ya," David Johnson, a disabled welder, said as he took Killen's hands. Johnson, who called the KKK "a good Christian group," said later that "if you give black people a chance, they will run you over."
Johnson's affections for the KKK were echoed Monday by defense witness Harlan Parks Major, who left office eight years ago after serving two four-year terms as Philadelphia mayor. "They do a lot of good for people," Major said of the KKK, drawing indignant chuckles from some in the audience.
Much of the prosecution's case is built on transcripts of testimony given in a federal trial of Killen and 18 others on charges of conspiring to violate Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner's civil rights. That 1967 trial occurred because state officials refused to file murder charges. Killen was acquitted in that case when one juror refused to convict him because he was a preacher.
Hood's modern-day case was shrunken because four alleged conspirators refused to accept immunity agreements and testify against Killen, frustrating the prosecutor. "That's a tough group; they wouldn't roll," Hood said. "This is a different breed. Give me a crackhead [to prosecute]. . . . I understand their logic."