The man folks around here call Preacher Killen, a wheelchair-bound 80-year-old with a Ku Klux Klan past, was wheeled into a red brick courthouse here on Wednesday to relive one of the most notorious moments of the civil rights movement -- the slayings of three young civil rights workers nearly 41 years ago.
Prosecutors, in a brief opening statement, painted Edgar Ray Killen as a mastermind, a ruthless enforcer of Klan hatred who ordered the killings of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Killen was so attentive to detail that he reminded the men in his mob to pick up gloves before the killings, Attorney General Jim Hood told the jury, which consists of nine white and three black members.
Hood, sometimes directing an index finger at Killen, accused the preacher of telling his Klan followers four decades ago that "God sanctions" the killings.
Defense attorneys, conceding that Killen was a member of the Klan, portrayed him as a small-time player in the hate group, a man without authority to order what the Klan called "an elimination." Lawyer Mitch Moran said prosecutors would try to say Killen was "the godfather who called the shots. Well, that's not true."
Before the opening statements Wednesday -- six days shy of the 41st anniversary of the slayings -- Killen winked and smiled at state troopers assigned to guard him. They smiled back, as they have for three days of Killen's chaotic passage to the courthouse through a pack of cameras during jury selection.
Killen's case, long the object of fascination to historians and civil rights activists, has been about much more than the deaths of three civil rights workers who became martyrs to the movement. It has been about a state confronting its past.
Neshoba County District Attorney Mark Duncan called Wednesday "a historic day."
"I'm sure that a lot of people feel it's a big step for Mississippi, that it shows how far we've come since the 1960s," he said.
But the 1960s is where Killen attorney James McIntyre would like to leave the case. McIntyre, at times shaking a clenched fist outside the courthouse, raged against Mississippi "opening old wounds."
"Are we going to digress 40 years and start looking at each other cross-eyed again?" he said. "The state of Mississippi needs to look forward, not backward."
History will unfurl during the trial. The victims are now grainy black-and-white photo memories; their survivors are graying or dead themselves. McIntyre is a historical link, too: He represented Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, who was acquitted in the 1967 federal conspiracy trial.
Prosecutors promised jurors that they would hear from the living and the dead. Several alleged conspirators, aging men like Killen, are on the prosecution's witness list. But some of the most damning testimony could come from the transcripts of the federal conspiracy trial in 1967, when Killen was acquitted of violating the civil rights of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner when a lone holdout juror refused to convict "a preacher."
Killen's defense team is hoping to block prosecutors from having the transcripts read to the jury, arguing that different legal issues were at play during the federal conspiracy trial; Killen is being tried for murder by the state. But that tactic has been foiled in other high-profile civil rights-era murder cases, including the trial of former Ku Klux Klan member Byron de la Beckwith.
The hordes of demonstrators that authorities here feared have not materialized. In January, when Killen was arraigned, there was a bomb threat at the courthouse, and his brother punched a cameraman. But this time, the streets around the courthouse, patrolled by dozens of armed officers, have been almost empty. The public has mostly shunned the proceedings, leaving Killen alone with dozens of reporters, a few relatives and two men who say they are KKK members from Georgia and Florida.
"Go get 'em now, Mr. Killen," one of the KKK members called out as Killen was wheeled into the courtroom this week.
Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman came to the state in 1964, during the fabled "Mississippi Freedom Summer," to register black voters and establish community projects, such as libraries for blacks living in a sharply segregated state.
Schwerner, a New Yorker and, at 24, the oldest of the group, was nicknamed "the Goat" by the KKK because he wore a goatee. He drove to Philadelphia, Miss., with Goodman, a 20-year-old New Yorker, and Chaney, a 21-year-old Mississippian and the only black man in their trio, to investigate the bombing of a black church.
Philadelphia police arrested them, saying they had been speeding, then released them around midnight June 21. Prosecutors say a group of Klansmen and local police organized by Killen ambushed them as they drove away, killed them and buried their bodies in the dense red mud of a newly constructed dam outside town. The weeks-long search for their bodies, culminating in the grisly discovery, became a national cause celebre and was dramatized in the movie "Mississippi Burning."
Killen was always suspected of involvement, but state prosecutors never charged him with murder and there was no federal murder statute at the time. Since then, he has been one of the best-known figures in this town of 7,000 people, occasionally presiding over funerals. One of those funerals was for the parents of the man overseeing his case: Neshoba County Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon.