Ex-Klansman Gets 60-Year Term In '64 'Mississippi Burning' Case

By Emily Wagster Pettus
Associated Press
Friday, June 24, 2005

PHILADELPHIA, Miss., June 23 -- Former Ku Klux Klansman Edgar Ray Killen was wheeled before a judge Thursday, an 80-year-old relic of Mississippi's hate-filled past, and sentenced to 60 years in prison for the 1964 slayings of three civil rights workers.

Killen sat in his wheelchair in a bright-yellow jail uniform and stared straight ahead, stone-faced. He offered no remorse and no explanations as Judge Marcus Gordon gave him the maximum -- thus closing one of the most shocking chapters in the movement to end segregation across the South.

"Each life has value. Each life is equally as valuable as the other life, and I have taken that into consideration," the judge said. "The three lives should absolutely be respected and treated equally."

In imposing the prison term, Gordon noted that some people "would say a sentence of 10 years would be a life sentence."

The judge asked whether Killen had anything to say.

"None, your honor," he said.

Killen, a Baptist preacher and sawmill operator, was convicted of manslaughter Tuesday, exactly 41 years after the three civil rights volunteers were killed while working in Mississippi to register blacks to vote. Killen has been in a wheelchair since breaking his legs in a March logging accident.

The victims -- black Mississippian James Chaney and white New Yorkers Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman -- were beaten and shot by Klansmen. Their bodies were found 44 days later, buried in a red-clay dam. Witnesses said Killen rounded up carloads of Klansmen to intercept the three men and helped arrange for a bulldozer to bury the bodies.

The killings made headlines across the country, exposed the depth of southern resistance to integration, and helped speed passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. The case was dramatized in the 1988 movie "Mississippi Burning."

During the sentencing, more than 25 armed law enforcement officers stood against the walls of the 200-seat, oak-paneled courtroom. Killen's relatives were on one side of the aisle and the victims' families on the other.

Schwerner's widow, Rita Schwerner Bender, blinked and nodded slightly as Gordon announced each sentence. She leaned on her husband, Bill Bender, and he firmly squeezed her hand.

"I want to thank God that today we saw Preacher Killen in a prison uniform taken from the courthouse to the jailhouse," said Chaney's younger brother, Ben Chaney.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company