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Jerry Mitchell -- Still Seeking Justice for Civil Rights Killings

Days ago, as news spread of Posey's death, one man called me to rub it in: "Too late, weren't you, Jerry?"

Edgar Ray Killen did live long enough to face a Mississippi jury. Killen, who orchestrated the trio's killings, is serving 60 years in the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, where he will undoubtedly spend his last days.

Posey could have joined him there. He came within one vote of being charged with murder in 2005. A relative of his on the grand jury cast a deciding vote against indictment.

Since 1989, 23 men have been convicted in killings from the civil rights era. More recently, legislation has created a cold-cases unit in the Justice Department, aimed at determining whether justice is possible in any other cases. Meanwhile, through the Center for Investigative Reporting, I am working with fellow journalists, documentary filmmakers and others to examine dozens of unpunished killings that have never been fully investigated.

After two men were finally sent to prison a few years ago for their roles in the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four girls, then-U.S. Attorney Doug Jones stood on the courthouse steps and declared, "Justice delayed isn't justice denied." It is a sentiment that families have repeated to me.

When a Neshoba County jury pronounced Killen guilty on June 21, 2005 -- the 41st anniversary of the civil rights workers' killings -- many residents regarded his conviction as the thing that would help exorcise the ghosts of the past.

Perhaps it helped to do that. Six months after the nation elected Barack Obama its first black president, this majority-white town of nearly 8,000 elected James Young its first black mayor.

With each step of progress, though, the past never seems far behind. Young, who publicly supported the prosecution of these killers, still recalls the Klan terrorizing his neighborhood and his daddy gripping a gun to protect his family.

When I shared news of Posey's death with Goodman's brother, David, of New York, he expressed regret, saying Posey "should have lived forever."

That feeling is shared by other family members and those who have been seeking justice for decades. Jewel McDonald, a 63-year-old member of the Philadelphia Coalition, can't forget Klansmen brutalizing her family members and burning down their church here.

Killen's conviction has aided race relations and perhaps played an unspoken role in the mayor's victory, McDonald said. "His election means a great deal, not just to the black community, but to the white community. It says we're not the same place we were 45 years ago."

My decision to chase these crimes for more than 20 years has hardly been popular. Some people have written letters to the editor. Others have cancelled their subscriptions to the newspaper. A few have leveled threats.


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