Beckwith, Assassin of Medgar Evers, Dies Serving Life Term

Washington Post/January 22, 2001

Jackson, Miss., -- Byron De La Beckwith, convicted assassin of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963, died tonight after he was transferred from his jail cell to a hospital. He was 80.

Barbara Austin, a hospital spokeswoman, said Beckwith entered University Medical Center at 2:07 p.m. (CDT). She could not elaborate on his ailment or the cause of death. "It's a matter for the coroner's office to determine," she said.

Evers, a 37-year-old NAACP field secretary who pushed for an end to segregation, had stepped out of his Oldsmobile when he was shot in the back on June 12, 1963. He was walking to his house with an armful of "Jim Crow Must Go" T-shirts.

Beckwith was convicted at a third trial in 1994 after two mistrials three decades earlier. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. His fingerprint was found on a deer rifle used to kill Evers. It was abandoned in the lot across the street. But the former fertilizer salesman insisted he was 90 miles away in Greenwood when Evers was murdered.

Two all-white juries deadlocked in trials in 1964. Twelve years ago, Evers's widow, Myrlie Evers Williams, asked for the case to be reopened, and Hinds County District Attorney Bobby DeLaughter agreed. "At the very beginning . . . we didn't have anything," DeLaughter said.

"The DA's file was nowhere to be found. We did not have the benefit of a trial transcript to know who the witnesses were. None of the evidence had been retained by the court." But DeLaughter and his officers stumbled across new evidence, including negatives from the crime scene and new witnesses who testified Beckwith had bragged to them "about beating the system."

Beckwith was arrested Dec. 17, 1990. His prosecutors were armed with new evidence and a 127-page document claiming 21 errors were made in Beckwith's original trial. Also, eight of the 12 jurors were black.

Beckwith, a white supremacist, wore a Confederate flag pin on his lapel throughout the 15 days of jury selection, testimony and deliberation. He was found guilty of murder and the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the decision in 1997.

A letter Beckwith wrote in 1956 was included in 1,800 pages of documents released Thursday from the files of the Sovereignty Commission, a state-funded agency that was pledged to preserve the status quo in the segregated South. Beckwith wrote to the commission's head, Gov. J.P. Coleman, asking for a job as an operative and pledged his support to what he called "a life or death struggle."

Beckwith listed his qualifications: "Expert with a pistol, good with a rifle and fair with a shotgun -- and -- RABID ON THE SUBJECT OF SEGREGATION!" "I therefore request that you select me, among many, as one who will tear the mask from the face of the NAACP and forever rid this fair land of the DISEASE OF INTEGRATION with which it is plagued with," Beckwith wrote. He wasn't hired.

The Beckwith papers were included in the third and final cache of papers released by the state, which created the commission in 1957 to kept tabs on more than 87,000 people who were suspected as subversives and civil rights sympathizers.

The commission was disbanded after Gov. William Waller vetoed funding in 1973. The Legislature tried to seal the documents, but a federal judge ordered them made public in 1998. Some of the 132,000 pages are available on the Internet. Beckwith is survived by his wife and a son.

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