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Ex-Klansman convicted

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Ex-KKK Member Convicted in 1964 Killings

 

By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS, Associated Press Writer 1 hour, 2 minutes ago

 

PHILADELPHIA, Miss. - An 80-year-old former Ku Klux Klansman was convicted of manslaughter Tuesday in the slayings of three civil rights workers exactly 41 years ago in a notorious case that inspired the movie "Mississippi Burning."

 

The jury of nine whites and three blacks reached the verdict on their second day of deliberations, rejecting murder charges against Edgar Ray Killen but also turning aside defense claims that he wasn't involved at all.

 

Killen showed no emotion as the verdict was read. He was comforted by his wife as he sat in his wheelchair, wearing an oxygen tube. Heavily armed police formed a barrier outside a side door to the courthouse and jurors were loaded into two waiting vans and driven away.

 

Civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were ambushed on June 21, 1964. Their bodies were found 44 days later buried in an earthen dam. They had been beaten and shot.

 

Cheers could be heard outside the two-story, red brick courthouse after the verdict was announced. Passers-by patted Chaney's brother, Ben, on the back and one woman slowed her vehicle and yelled, "Hey, Mr. Chaney, all right!"

 

Later, Ben Chaney thanked the prosecutors but said that for the community, "I really feel that there is more to be done." He said there were still no black businesses downtown.

 

Schwerner's widow, Rita Schwerner Bender, praised the verdict, calling it "a day of great importance to all of us." But she said others also should be held responsible for the slayings.

 

"Preacher Killen didn't act in a vacuum," Bender said. "The state of Mississippi was complicit in these crimes and all the crimes that occurred, and that has to be opened up."

 

Prosecutors had asked the jury to send a message to the rest of the world that Mississippi has changed and is committed to bringing to justice those who killed to preserve segregation in the 1960s. They said the evidence was clear that Killen organized the attack on the three victims.

 

Killen's lawyers conceded he was in the Klan but said that did not make him guilty. They pointed out that prosecutors offered no witnesses or evidence that put Killen at the scene of the crime. Killen did not take the stand, but has long claimed that he was at a wake at a funeral home when the victims were killed.

 

While Killen was indicted on murder charges, which could carry a life sentence, prosecutors asked the judge to allow the jury to consider the lesser charge of manslaughter, which has a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

 

Attorney General Jim Hood said earlier that with a murder charge, prosecutors had to prove intent to kill. With a manslaughter charge, he said, prosecutors had to prove only that a victim died while another crime was being committed.

 

Killen was only person ever brought up on murder charges in the case by the state of Mississippi.

 

Killen, a part-time preacher and sawmill operator, was tried in 1967 on federal charges of violating the victims' civil rights. But the all-white jury deadlocked, with one juror saying she could not convict a preacher. Seven others were convicted, but none served more than six years.

 

The trial moved along swiftly, with testimony over only four days. Many of the witnesses from the 1967 trial now dead; this time, their testimony was read aloud to the jury from the transcripts.

 

Chaney, a black Mississippian, and Goodman and Schwerner, white New Yorkers, were in Neshoba County to look into the torching of a black church and help register black voters during what was called Freedom Summer.

 

The three were stopped for speeding on the night of the attack, jailed briefly, and then released, after which they were followed out of town by a gang of Klansmen and intercepted.

 

Witnesses — primarily Klansmen — testified that Killen was a local Klan organizer who led meetings where members discussed the "elimination" of Schwerner, whom they called "Goatee" because of his beard.

 

Witnesses said on the day of the slayings, Killen drove about 35 miles to Meridian and rounded up carloads of Klansmen to intercept the three men in their station wagon. According to testimony, Killen told some Klansmen to get plastic gloves and helped arrange for a bulldozer to bury the bodies.

 

Killen's case marked the latest attempt in the Deep South to deal with unfinished business from the civil rights era.

 

In 1994, Mississippi won the conviction of Byron de la Beckwith for the 1963 sniper killing of state NAACP leader Medgar Evers.

 

In Alabama, Bobby Frank Cherry was convicted in 2002 of killing four black girls in the bombing of a Birmingham church in 1963 — the deadliest attack of the civil rights era. In 2001, Thomas Blanton was convicted in the bombing.

 

State prosecutors also have reopened an investigation into the 1955 slaying of Chicago teenager Emmett Till in the Mississippi Delta. Till was kidnapped from his uncle's home after being accused of whistling at a white woman. Three days later, the 14-year-old's mutilated body was found in a river. Earlier this month, his remains were exhumed and autopsied.

 

In the case against Killen, prosecutors told jurors that a conviction was crucial in showing the world that times have changed in Mississippi.

 

"Because the guilt of Edgar Ray Killen is so clear, there is only one question left," prosecutor Mark Duncan said. "Is a Neshoba County jury going to tell the rest of the world that we are not going to let Edgar Ray Killen get away with murder any more? Not one day more."

 

Defense attorney James McIntyre urged the jury to "vote your conscience" and acquit Killen. "There is a reasonable doubt," the lawyer said.

 

The bald, gray-haired Killen was brought into court each day in a wheelchair — the result of a logging accident in which he broke his legs. Killen had to be taken from the courthouse in a stretcher last week to be treated for high blood pressure — the same day that Schwerner's widow took the stand.

 

Bender took a riveted courtroom back in time to 1964, when she and her husband stayed in Mississippi with black families but had to constantly move around because of threats against their lives.

 

She also recalled the day when she was told that authorities had found the burned-out shell of her husband's blue station wagon.

 

"I think it really hit me for the first time that they were dead, that there was really no realistic possibility that they were alive," Bender said, occasionally looking as though she was fighting back tears. A few in the courtroom wiped away tears during the testimony.

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i remember watching that movie...bad a tv movie as it was it was very tough to watch...

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Glad to see they convicted him of something. Too bad it took this long to happen.

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QUOTE(bmags @ Jun 21, 2005 -> 12:29 PM)
i remember watching that movie...bad a tv movie as it was it was very tough to watch...

 

Mississippi Burning??? Is that the movie you are talking about??? If so, I want the same TV channels you are getting if you TV movies are as amazing as that movie is. It is kind of a HIGHLY respected movie. Not as respected as Billy Corgan mind you...but still... :P

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So, will he get life in prison?

 

(Basically, that is like... 5-10 years)

 

Gotta love the justice system that takes 40 years to put someone on trial.

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You can run, but not hide.

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