Prosecutors in Jackson, Miss., citing new evidence from "courageous" witnesses, said yesterday they have reinstated a murder charge in the slaying of Medgar Evers, an NAACP leader whose death there in 1963 galvanized the civil rights movement.
Ed Peters, district attorney for Hinds County, said a grand jury again has indicted white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith, alleging that he hid in bushes outside Evers's home and shot him in the back with a rifle.
Beckwith, now 70 and in poor health, went free after all-white juries failed to reach verdicts in two murder trials in 1964. He was arrested Monday at his house in Signal Mountain, Tenn.
The Evers case became an instant symbol of growing racial violence nationally and a test of justice in southern courts.
His death at age 37 came a year before the slaying of three young civil rights activists, two white and one black, near Philadelphia, Miss. The bodies of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James E. Chaney were found buried in a freshly built dam 44 days after the three were shot, and their deaths were the subject of the 1988 film "Mississippi Burning."
Few in Jackson other than the prosecutors expected a conviction in the Evers case. At Beckwith's first trial, the prosecutor asked prospective jurors flat-out: "Do you believe it is a crime to kill a nigger?" The judge was an admitted segregationist. Blacks who attended the first trial expressed surprise when he allowed them to use the courthouse restroom, which bore a sign stating: "White Men Only."
Evers's wife, Myrlie, said afterwards she saw "a ray of hope" in the fact that the jury did not acquit Beckwith outright. In 1969, after a second jury deadlocked, the murder charge against him was dismissed.
Since then, the case has hung unresolved in the collective memory of a state where many attitudes about race have changed dramatically.
"This single, cowardly act of the person responsible for Medgar Evers's assassination has probably done more to hurt the state and the perception of Mississippi . . . than any other single act I can think of," said Assistant District Attorney Bobby DeLaughter, assigned to the current case.
Fourteen months ago, Evers's widow, now public works commissioner in Los Angeles, asked prosecutors to reopen the investigation. She said she was motivated by published reports that the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, established to fight desegregation, had investigated potential jurors for Beckwith's second trial.
Prosecutors scrutinized the commission's actions, but DeLaughter said a grand jury found no evidence of jury tampering. The grand jury did suggest, according to DeLaughter, that prosecutors look into the murder again.
Myrlie Evers testified before the current grand jury, then told reporters gathered outside, "I'm hopeful this time."
At a news conference yesterday, Peters declined to specify the new evidence. But he said both whites and blacks "have taken the courageous step of coming forward" and are willing to testify at a new trial of Beckwith.
Willie Osborne, 81, a deacon at New Jerusalem Baptist Church in Jackson, said in a telephone interview yesterday he saw Beckwith in Jackson the evening that Evers was killed but was afraid to come forward and say so. "I thought, 'I'm not getting into it,' " Osborne said. "I would have been afraid I would have been killed."
Beckwith, a former fertilizer salesman and a member of a white-supremacist organization, can be charged again because murder has no statute of limitations. Since neither jury reached a verdict, double jeopardy is not an issue.
The original case was built on circumstantial evidence. Evers, who as state NAACP secretary had organized sit-ins and filed suit to integrate Jackson schools, was killed in his driveway when he returned home late one night from a meeting.
Police testified Beckwith's fingerprint was found on the telescopic sight of a rifle found hidden near the house in a tangle of vines. A gun dealer testified he traded the rifle to Beckwith. A carhop and a drive-in customer testified they saw a car resembling Beckwith's cruising the area. Two taxi drivers testified Beckwith had asked them a few days earlier where "Nigra Medgar Evers, the NAACP leader, lives."
Prosecutors also displayed a letter from Beckwith to the National Rifle Association that said: "We here in Mississippi are going to have to do a great deal of shooting to protect our wives and children from bad niggers."
But two police officers and an auxiliary officer testified they saw Beckwith at a gas station in his hometown of Greenwood, about two hours from Jackson, only 30 minutes after Evers was shot. Beckwith testified his rifle had been stolen from his car or his closet two days before the killing.
Beckwith's wife, Thelma, said he was nonchalant when deputies came to arrest him Monday, telling them: "It's good to see you, boys. I'm ready to go. I'm not guilty."
Beckwith, who served five years in prison after being convicted for illegal possession of dynamite in Louisiana in 1973, said he would fight extradition from Tennessee to Mississippi. He was freed on bond in Chattanooga; his next court appearance is scheduled for Feb. 22.
June 12, 1963: Medgar Evers, the Mississippi NAACP field secretary, is shot in the back outside his home.
June 21, 1963: Byron De La Beckwith is arrested by the FBI on a civil rights charge. Authorities say his fingerprint was on the telescopic sight of a rifle found near the scene. Beckwith claims that the rifle was stolen from his home.
Jan. 27, 1964: Beckwith's first trial begins with an all-white jury. It ends in a hung jury Feb. 7.
April 6, 1964: Beckwith's second trial begins, again with an all-white jury. Jurors report that they are deadlocked April 17.
1969: The murder charge against Beckwith is dismissed.
October 1989: Published reports say the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a state segregationist watchdog agency, screened potential jurors in Beckwith's second trial. Prosecutors later announce that they found no evidence of jury tampering.
Oct. 3, 1989: Evers's widow, Myrlie, asks that her husband's murder case be reopened. The Jackson City Council, the NAACP and others support reopening it.
March 11, 1990: District Attorney Ed Peters announces that there are new leads in the case.
Dec. 17, 1990: Beckwith is arrested on a fugitive warrant issued by the state of Mississippi.
Dec. 18, 1990: Beckwith is indicted again in the Evers shooting.
SOURCE: Associated Press