Judge gives Killen 20 years per murder

Los Angeles Times/June 24, 2005
By Ellen Barry

Philadelphia, Miss. -- Gazing down at Edgar Ray Killen, who was once his parents' preacher, Neshoba County Judge Marcus Gordon on Thursday imposed the maximum sentence of 60 years in prison for the 1964 murders of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner.

"It is my responsibility to make that decision, and I have done it," said Gordon, 73.

The judge acknowledged that Killen is 80 and that he was badly injured in a March sawmill accident when a tree fell on him, breaking both his legs. Imposing the punishment, he said, gave him no pleasure. Then he sentenced Killen to three consecutive 20-year prison terms, one for each victim.

"Each life has value," Gordon said, "and each life is equal to other lives. There are three lives involved in this case, and three lives should be respected."

A mixed-race jury on Tuesday convicted Killen, a local recruiter for the Ku Klux Klan, on three counts of manslaughter in the crimes depicted in the film "Mississippi Burning." Prosecutors said Killen had organized a mob to kill the three young men--two white and one black--who were in Philadelphia to register black voters.

Killen's lawyers have said they would appeal the verdict.

In an interview, Gordon said he had received death threats as the trial date approached. But he said the case had not imposed a particular burden.

"I'm kind of crusty," he said.

Like Killen, Gordon grew up in Union, Miss., about 15 miles south of Philadelphia. His parents attended a church where Killen preached. When Gordon's parents died within days of one another, Killen preached at their double funeral.

"My daddy respected his church," Gordon said. "He respected his preacher."

In 1975, Gordon had prosecuted Killen on felony charges of telephone harassment. Killen was convicted in that case and served 5 months in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.

After the sentencing hearing, Betty Jo Killen ran to her husband's side and kissed him three times before he was taken to the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility. Oscar Kenneth Killen, his brother, commented that the judicial process had been tainted by money.

"Money will do anything," he said.

Rita Schwerner Bender, Schwerner's widow, said afterward that the judge's comments about the value of a life struck home. Gordon, she said, "recognized that no one is valued more than others. Not only these men, but all the other people who were murdered and brutalized, they were all mothers' sons."

Atty. Gen. Jim Hood, who prosecuted the Killen case, said the Klan no longer exists as an organized force in Mississippi. But, he said, Killen and imprisoned Klan leader Sam Bowers have never exhibited anything but defiance to the state.

"At some point, there's got to be some remorse," Hood said. "You don't go to heaven unless you admit what you've done and ask for forgiveness."

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