Ex-Klan Leader Convicted In '64 Case

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 22, 2005

PHILADELPHIA, Miss., June 21 -- Edgar Ray Killen flourished in Mississippi's racist past. But on Tuesday a new generation of jurors convicted him of manslaughter in one of the most notorious crimes of the civil rights era, the killing of three civil rights workers on a country road just outside this old lumber town.

On the 41st anniversary of the killings, law enforcement officers shuttled off to jail a man who for four decades had embodied Mississippi at its meanest and angriest: a country preacher with thick woodcutter's forearms, who ordered killings out of hate and bragged about it. He left the courthouse a stooped old man in a wheelchair, clinging to an oxygen tube, but still angry. Killen, 80, glowered into the heat of a Mississippi scorcher of an afternoon and took a swipe at one of the cameras documenting his comeuppance.

Jurors took just 5 1/2 hours to convict the former Ku Klux Klan leader of manslaughter in the deaths of three men whose names are synonymous with the violence of the civil rights era: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Graying black men who grew up in a segregated world, but lived to see it end, held their faces in their hands and sobbed in the audience. Outside the courtroom, there were cheers.

Moments after the verdict was read, Killen's wife, Betty Jo Killen, leaned over his shoulders from behind, wrapping her arms around his neck. Killen reached up and cupped her head with his left hand as jurors filed out.

Prosecutors had wanted much more from this case. They wanted to get Killen -- whose attorneys plan to appeal Tuesday's verdict -- for murder, but they were undermined by a dearth of live witnesses decades after the killings and a presentation that, at times, was devoid of the precision and passion many hoped for. Acknowledging that their case was weakened by an inability to get Killen's few living accomplices to cooperate, prosecutors settled for giving jurors the fallback option of sending him to prison for manslaughter.

"It's not the perfect verdict, I suppose," said Neshoba County District Attorney Mark Duncan. "But you have to understand it was not a perfect case."

Duncan was nudged into the case by an eclectic group of Philadelphia residents, black and white, old and young, professional and working-class. The organization, which came to be known as the Philadelphia Coalition, hoped to rewrite this town's place in history, taking a splotch of rural Mississippi that was until now an emblem of unspeakable intolerance and giving it a newer, more honorable sheen.

"For the young people, I'm hoping it will mean a new beginning," said Nettie Cox, a 64-year-old black woman who remembers a time when men like Killen ran her town.

Some feared that this town, which gave Killen four decades of refuge, could not have a reckoning with him. This is a place of cozy familiarities, and the trial was no different. Duncan is a child of the same county that sheltered Killen all these years; Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, who personally tried the case with Duncan, grew up not far away. Killen's brother Oscar Kenneth Killen lashed out at Duncan while testifying, accusing him of being the hypocritical son and grandson of members of the Ku Klux Klan, a charge that the prosecutor later denied. "I'm one of y'all," Duncan said after the verdict, directing his remarks at his neighbors.

Marcus Gordon -- the gray-haired, slow-talking, straight-from-central-casting southern judge who oversaw the six-day trial -- had years ago watched the man known as Preacher Killen preside at the funerals of his parents. One of Killen's cousins was in the jury pool, and the prosecution's jury consultant, Andrew Sheldon, marveled that "everyone knows the Killens, and the Killens know everyone."

Cox knew him, too, and she knew the others: the sheriff and the deputies and the Klan flunkies who killed the civil rights workers under Killen's direction. Cox, like many others here, felt Killen's conviction was bittersweet and incomplete because prosecutors were not able to persuade a grand jury to indict four of the accomplices who are still living.

Over the years, Cox would see Killen shopping downtown, near the courthouse square shaded by the canopy of magnolia trees that were in full white bloom on this day that some thought would never come. Like everyone, she knew what had come out at Killen's 1967 federal trial, how he carefully orchestrated the burning of a black church and the beating of the worshipers there to lure Chaney -- who was black -- Goodman and Schwerner to Philadelphia. His plan worked. The young men, who had come south for the Mississippi Freedom Summer voter registration drives in black neighborhoods, drove to Philadelphia to investigate. Goodman had written a letter home from nearby Meridian, Miss., the day before -- his first in Mississippi. "This is a wonderful town," Duncan told jurors, reading the dead man's words in low tones. "Our reception was wonderful."

The three men were arrested for speeding, then ambushed after their release. Mike Hatcher, a former Philadelphia law enforcement officer and Klan errand boy, testified that Killen boasted to him the day after the killings about Schwerner's last words before he was shot and buried in a mud dam: "I understand how you feel, sir."

The weeks-long search for the bodies galvanized the emotions of the civil rights movement and was one of the inspirations for the passage of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act. But the killers never were held accountable. When Mississippi officials refused to seek murder indictments, the federal government -- hampered by the lack of a federal murder statute like the one that exists today -- indicted Killen and 18 others for violating the civil rights of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman. Killen and two others received mistrials. Seven others were convicted, and nine were acquitted.

Four decades later, jurors showed no such reservations about convicting a preacher, though they did have some hesitations about the prosecution's performance.

"On the one hand, this guy needs to be convicted," said juror Warren Paprocki, 54, according to the Associated Press. "And on the other hand, the state needed to present better evidence."

Michael Schwerner's widow, Rita Bender, whose quiet grace and enduring grief on the witness stand set off sobs in the courtroom, lamented that jurors did not define the man who orchestrated her "Mickey's" death as a murderer. But the verdict, she said, borrowing a phrase, still represented "one small step for mankind."

Killen will be sentenced Thursday and is facing up to 20 years in prison for each of the three manslaughter convictions.

Duncan, his hometown ordeal almost over, did not feel qualified to say whether the angry old man will die in prison. "That," Duncan said, his voice dipping to a hush, "will be up to his maker."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company