A Mississippi jury convicted an elderly former Ku Klux Klan leader of manslaughter Tuesday for the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers in a case that raised bitter memories of racial violence across the South.
Edgar Ray Killen, 80, a former sawmill operator, preacher and local Klan organizer, was found guilty on three counts of manslaughter 41 years to the day after James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner disappeared in Neshoba County. The bodies of the three, who had been investigating the burning of a black church and helping blacks register to vote, were found six weeks later, buried in an earthen dam. Chaney, 21, was a young black man from Mississippi, and Goodman, 20, and Schwerner, 24, were whites from New York.
The verdict, reached by a jury of nine white and three black members in the county where Killen has lived since the killings, was "imperfect," but still a victory, said Neshoba County District Attorney Mark Duncan.
Prosecutors had hoped to convict Killen of three of the civil rights era's most notorious murders, but decided to give the jury the option of manslaughter because so many of the key witnesses have died in the years since Philadelphia became synonymous with the South's violent reaction to integration.
"There's justice for all in Mississippi," said state Attorney General Jim Hood, who personally tried the case along with Duncan.
Killen, confined to a wheelchair since breaking his legs in a wood-cutting accident three months ago, was rolled out of the courtroom here and driven away in an unmarked police car. As the verdict was read, he stared intently at the backs of the 12 jurors, who had lined up in front of the judge.
Killen clenched his jaw, but betrayed no other emotions. Moments later, his wife walked around the courtroom railing and embraced him, sobbing. Killen cupped his left hand against her head as the jury filed out. A bald man with large glasses, he breathed through a plastic tube attached to a nearby oxygen tank.
Tears of joy and relief streamed down the faces of several in the audience at the prospect that a man who reveled in his ability to elude justice would finally be incarcerated.
Killen's attorney, James McIntyre, said the verdict will be appealed.
Killen faces up to 20 years in prison for each of the three manslaughter charges in the deaths of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. Hood said Killen will be subject to a minimum of one year in prison for each charge because he has a prior felony conviction.
The jury in Philadelphia, Miss., the Neshoba County seat, initially deadlocked 6-6 yesterday on their first day of deliberations. But they came to agreement today on the manslaughter counts -- lesser charges than the prosecution had first pressed.
Prosecutors asked at the end of the trial that the jury be allowed to consider manslaughter as an option after they were unable to prove that Killen was at the scene of the murders on a country road about two miles from his home. The prosecution had introduced evidence that Killen masterminded the crime.
The three victims were beaten and shot to death after being dragged from their car by two carloads of Klansmen who ambushed them on rural Rock Cut Road outside Philadelphia. Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner had been arrested on a charge of speeding and subsequently released by a deputy sheriff, who allegedly tipped off Killen so that he could put together a lynch mob.
The case was the subject of the 1988 movie, "Mississippi Burning," about the efforts of two FBI agents to investigate the murders.
After checking the verdict with each of the jurors, Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon told them, "I know it's been a trying several days for you. The court appreciates your attention and your services." He then told sheriff's deputies, "You may remove the defendant," and they wheeled Killen and his oxygen tank out of the courtroom.
It was the first time that anyone had been charged with killing the three civil rights workers in a state court. In 1967, seven other men were convicted on federal charges of violating the trio's civil rights, and they served sentences that did not exceed six years. The all-white jury was unable to reach a verdict on Killen when a lone juror refused to vote for conviction, saying she could not do such a thing to a preacher.
McIntyre, Killen's defense lawyer, argued that although Killen may have been a Klan member, that did not make him guilty in the deaths of the three civil rights workers. McIntyre said following the verdict that he had objected to the manslaughter instruction and that there was not enough evidence to convict his client of murder.
After the verdict was announced, police escorted jurors out a side door to two waiting vans, which drove them away.
Cheers erupted outside the two-story, red brick courthouse, and passers-by congratulated Chaney's brother, Ben, the Associated Press reported.
Ben Chaney later thanked the prosecutors but said "there is more to be done" for the black community in Philadelphia.
Schwerner's widow, Rita Schwerner Bender, hailed the verdict but said others should also be held responsible for the killings.
"Preacher Killen didn't act in a vacuum," Bender said, according to AP. "The state of Mississippi was complicit in these crimes and all the crimes that occurred, and that has to be opened up."