A Klan Confession, but Not to 1964 Civil Rights Murders

New York Times/June 16, 2005
By Shaila Dewan and Jerry Mitchell

Philadelphia, Miss. -- For years, Edgar Ray Killen has said that he had nothing to do with the murders of three civil rights workers by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964, and that he had never been a member of the Klan.

But as Mr. Killen's trial in the killings began on Wednesday, his lawyer said that Mr. Killen was a Klan member and had even recruited people to help beat up the three workers, James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were trying to help blacks in Mississippi register to vote.

"He was a part of it, as far as being a member" of the Klan, Mitch Moran said in his opening statement. "Does that make him guilty of murder? No."

But prosecutors said that Mr. Killen, a preacher and sawmill operator, was the mastermind behind the murders. "The state intends to prove not only did he plan the murder, and bring people and tell people where to hide the bodies, the state believes you will find the defendant guilty of three counts of murder," said Jim Hood, the state attorney general.

The trial, beginning six days before the 41st anniversary of the killings, is one of the most significant in a series of re-prosecutions of civil-rights-era killings, including the 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Miss., and a church bombing the same year in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four girls.

The disappearance of Mr. Chaney, Mr. Goodman and Mr. Schwerner, who had come to Neshoba County on a Sunday afternoon in June to inspect a church that had been burned by the Klan, riveted the nation and spurred Congress to pass the long-embattled Civil Rights Act of 1964 that July, helping to break the back of the Jim Crow system in the South. The bodies of the three were found 44 days after they disappeared, buried 15 feet deep in an earthen dam.

The trial has brought family members of the victims, men wearing Klan lapel pins, and at least one protester to Philadelphia, a small town that has been branded for decades by the killings and is eager to shed its racist image. Several victims' relatives have not been in court because they are potential witnesses.

One woman who has been intimately involved in the case, Jewell Rush McDonald, was summoned to appear for the jury pool but was dismissed. Ms. McDonald was 18 years old when her mother and brother were beaten in the Klan attack at Mount Zion United Methodist Church, whose burning some have testified was intended to lure the three civil rights workers, based in nearby Meridian, out to investigate. Ms. McDonald was dismissed after she told the judge that she believed Mr. Killen was guilty.

"I feel Edgar Ray Killen should get a fair trial," Ms. McDonald said. "I don't want anything to jeopardize this man getting a fair trial."

In 1967, the federal government tried 18 men, including Mr. Killen and the Neshoba County sheriff, for conspiring to violate the victims' civil rights. Seven were convicted, but none served more than six years in prison. In Mr. Killen's case, the all-white jury voted 11 to 1 to convict him, but the holdout said she could never convict a preacher.

The jury seated today was more diverse. Nine white women, four white men, two black women, two black men were selected. Fourteen were between the ages of 30 and 50, but six had not been born when the killings occurred. Five of the jurors are alternates, but the judge, Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon, did not disclose which ones, saying he did not want the jury to know because he wanted them all to pay close attention to the proceedings.

Mark Duncan, the Neshoba County district attorney, asked the jurors to promise to disregard the fact that Mr. Killen, 80, is wheelchair bound and frail, and not to be swayed because was a preacher. "I mean we're all sinners, aren't we? Some of us are just worse than others," he said.

Jurors are to be sequestered for the duration of the trial.

"Whatever you do will forever be remembered in the history of Neshoba County," Judge Gordon told the jury pool before the final selections were made.

The three workers, driving a car whose license plate had been circulated among the Klan, had been stopped by a deputy sheriff and Klan member and held for several hours at the Philadelphia jail. The deputy, according to witnesses, notified other Klansmen, and Mr. Killen recruited nightriders to help with the attack. After the three were released, the deputy followed and stopped them again - this time delivering them into the hands of several carloads of Klansmen.

Both sides agree that Mr. Killen was not present when the men were shot and buried. But witnesses have said that he was a Kleagle, or local Klan recruiter, and plotted out what would happen when Mr. Chaney, Mr. Schwerner and Mr. Goodman were released from jail, where the Klan members should meet, and where the men would be shot and buried.

Mississippi law does not distinguish between being an accessory to murder and actually pulling the trigger.

But Mr. Moran said his client never mentioned killing. "I've been in the South long enough to know that a sheriff basically runs the county," Mr. Moran told the jury. "Edgar Ray Killen couldn't tell a sheriff what to do, he couldn't tell a deputy what to do."Five of the defendants in the original case, including three who were convicted, have been subpoenaed as potential witnesses in the case. But much of the prosecution's case relies on testimony from the 1967 trial, which under Mississippi law can be presented in court if the witnesses were cross-examined at the time. Three of the main witnesses at that trial are now dead.

Such testimony is presented by having stand-ins read aloud from the transcript as if it were a script.

But today, Mr. Killen's lawyers filed a motion to bar the use of the transcript, saying that Mississippi law at the time of the killings would not have allowed it.

The judge will hear oral arguments on that motion on Thursday morning.

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