For many in the Mississippi courtroom on June 21, 2005, the 80-year-old man in a wheelchair, breathing from the thin green tubes of an oxygen tank, embodied the state’s violent, hate-filled past.
It had been 41 years to the day since the killing of three civil rights workers on a country road in the old lumber town of Philadelphia, Miss. The crime shook the country, propelling the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and inspiring the 1988 movie “Mississippi Burning.”
And on that scorching afternoon, a new generation of jurors convicted Edgar Ray Killen of manslaughter in the deaths of those workers — James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner — whose names became synonymous with the cruelty of the civil rights era. It took just 5 1/2 hours for the Neshoba County jurors to find Killen, a former Ku Klux Klan leader and country preacher who ordered the killings out of hate and boasted about them, guilty of the 1964 offense.
Outside the courthouse, people cheered. Inside, “graying black men who grew up in a segregated world, but lived to see it end, held their faces in their hands and sobbed in the audience,” The Washington Post reported at the time. Killen, stooped in his wheelchair, glowered as he left the courthouse, taking “a swipe at one of the cameras documenting his comeuppance.”
Killen died inside the Mississippi State Penitentiary at 9 p.m. Thursday night while serving three consecutive 20-year terms. He was 92.
An autopsy was pending, but no foul play was suspected, the state’s corrections department said in a statement Friday.
Prosecutors wanted Killen to be found guilty of murder, and many were disappointed he wasn’t.
“The fact that some members of this jury could have sat through that testimony, indeed could have lived here all these years and could not bring themselves to acknowledge that these were murders, that they were committed with malice, indicates that there are still people unfortunately among you who choose to look aside, who choose to not see the truth,” Rita Bender, who had been married to Schwerner, told the New York Times after the trial.
But prosecutors were challenged by the dearth of live witnesses decades after the killings. They were also set back by their inability to get Killen’s few living accomplices to cooperate. Jurors said at the time that they felt they lacked the evidence they needed to convict Killen of murder.
“I should say I heard a number of very emotional statements from some of the white jurors,” said Warren Paprocki, a white juror who was 54 years old at the time, told the New York Times. “They had tears in their eyes, saying that if they could just have better evidence in the case that they would have convicted him of murder in a minute. Our consensus was the state did not produce a strong enough case.”
Willis Lyon, one of the three black jurors, told the New York Times that “we were as fair with Mr. Killen as we could have been.”
“I think we gave him as fair a verdict on his behalf as was allowable,” he said.
Nebosha County District Attorney Mark Duncan conceded at the time that it was not the perfect verdict.
“But you have to understand it was not a perfect case,” he told The Post.
The three civil rights workers had been arrested for speeding in 1964 and were attacked after their release. During the 2005 trial, Mike Hatcher, a former Philadelphia law enforcement officer and Klan errand boy, testified that Killen bragged to him about the killings the day after they happened, The Post reported at the time. Killen had told Hatcher that Schwerner’s last words before he was shot and buried in a mud dam were, “I understand how you feel, sir.”
It took weeks before the bodies were found, and the killers were never held accountable. Mississippi officials at the time refused to seek murder indictments and the federal government, which did not have a federal murder statute like the one that exists today, indicted Killen and 18 others in 1967 for violating the men’s civil rights. Seven were convicted, nine were acquitted and Killen, along with two others, received mistrials.
Duncan, the prosecutor in the six-day 2005 trial, was approached about 38 years after the killings by a group called the Philadelphia Coalition, which hoped to rewrite its town’s history.
But some feared Philadelphia, which had already sheltered Killen for nearly four decades, would continue to do so. The judge who oversaw the 2005 trial, Marcus Gordon, had years before watched Preacher Killen preside over the funerals of his parents. One of Killen’s cousins was in the jury pool. And Killen’s brother, Oscar Kenneth Killen, attacked Duncan while testifying, accusing the prosecutor of being the hypocritical son and grandson of Ku Klux Klan members.
Duncan later denied the association, and told neighbors after the verdict, “I’m one of y’all.”
Some in Neshoba County thought it would be too late and too painful to reopen the case but others believed the trial — and the conviction that followed — would help the county find peace.
“Finally, finally, finally,” said Jim Prince, the editor of the local weekly newspaper, The Neshoba Democrat, according to the New York Times. “This certainly sends a message, I think, to the criminals and to the thugs that justice reigns in Neshoba County, unlike 41 years ago.”
James Chaney’s younger brother, Ben Chaney, told the New York Times that he spoke briefly to his 82-year-old mother after the verdict, and said she was pleased.
“She finally believes that the life of her son has some value to the people in this community,” he said.