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Edgar Ray KILLEN




Civil Rights Murder Case


In 1964, the year three civil rights workers were murdered in Neshoba County, Edgar Ray Killen was a sawmill operator and a part-time Baptist preacher known for stirring words at funerals and weddings. According to witnesses, Killen was also a recruiter for the Ku Klux Klan and had special hatred for Michael "Mickey" Schwerner, a New York native who had come to Mississippi to register voters. Killen has recently said that he never belonged to the Klan and didn't even know Schwerner's name.



Andrew "Andy" Goodman, a 20-year-old student at Queens College in New York, was only in Mississippi for one day before he was killed. The New Yorker was among nearly 1,000 college students, mostly white, who signed up for "Freedom Summer," a program by civil rights groups to register Mississippi blacks to vote. After a training program in Ohio, he drove with Michael Schwerner and James Chaney to Meridian, arriving the evening of June 20, 1964. His first assignment was to accompany his coworkers as they investigated a church burning in Neshoba County. He never returned.



Before coming to Mississippi, Michael Schwerner, 24, was a social worker in Manhattan. Schwerner, who was from a Jewish family, told people he was an atheist. He and his wife Rita took positions with the Congress of Racial Equality, organizing a boycott of a store that refused to hire blacks and setting up a community center. Schwerner immediately earned the enmity of the Ku Klux Klan, which gave him the code name "Goatee." According to a witness, Schwerner tried to reason with the Klansmen who killed him, saying to a man aiming a gun at him, "Sir, I know just how you feel."



James Chaney was 21 years old and a new father on June 21, 1964. The only native Mississippian of the victims, Chaney grew up in Meridian, the eldest of five children. He began working for the Congress of Racial Equality as a volunteer and later the Schwerners pushed for him to be hired as a paid staff member. He was behind the wheel of the CORE station wagon when deputies stopped the civil rights workers. According to witnesses, he was the last to be shot.



FBI agents took the lead in investigating the disappearances because local law enforcement agents were unwilling to do so and, in some cases, were under suspicion. Federal agents questioned Klan members and helped organized searches of swamps and fields near Philadelphia. The FBI men paid Klan informants thousands for their cooperation and the accounts of those informants were the heart of the federal civil rights case brought against 18 men in 1967.



Federal and state investigators as well as Navy recruits combed snake-infested swamps for signs of the missing civil rights workers. Forty-four days after they vanished, a tip led to the discovery of their bodies at the base of an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Mississippi.



The blue station wagon driven by the trio was recovered in a swampy area north of Philadelphia two days after they vanished. The vehicle, owned by the Congress of Racial Equality, had been set afire.



In 1967, 18 men, including Killen (at left) and Neshoba County Deputy Cecil Price, stood trial on federal civil rights charges. Price was convicted, but Killen walked free after the jury deadlocked 11 to 1 in favor of conviction. The holdout juror said she could not convict a preacher.



In the wake of the murders, Philadelphia, Mississippi became synonymous with racial violence. Federal prosecutors pursued civil rights charges in Meridian, but local prosecutors did not bring murder charges. A year after the murders, some 60 marchers marked the anniversary by marching to the site of the church burning that brought Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner to Neshoba County.



In 1999, state investigators reopened the murder case after a Klansmen serving a life sentence for another racial murder gave an interview to a state archivist in which he implicated Killen as the ringleader. A grand jury indicted 79-year-old Killen, seen here in his booking photo, in January 2005.



Killen, still working as a preacher and sawmill operator, denied he was involved in the slayings or ever belonged to the Klan, but expressed sympathy for those that carried out the murders. "I'm not going to say they did anything wrong,"
he said.



Killen, seen here after his release from Neshoba County Detention Center on $250,000 bail, insists he did not even know of Michael Schwerner's existence before the disappearance of the civil rights workers made headlines.



A lawyer for Killen says his defense will consist of character witnesses, including fellow Baptist ministers. The defense also plans to attack testimony from Klan informants, saying the FBI bought their accounts with thousands of dollars in government payouts.



Killen's trial opened one week before the 41st anniversary of the deaths. Lawyers were only permitted 15 minutes to present opening statements to the panel of 13 whites and four blacks. Defense lawyer Mitchell Moran told the jury his client was a low-level member with no control over the Klan's activities. State Attorney General Jim Hood acknowledged that Killen did not shoot the men himself, but said Killen's role as organizer made him just as guilty as those who fired the guns.



Circuit Court Judge Marcus Gordon halted the trial on its first day after the 80-year-old defendant was rushed to the hospital with tightness in his chest and high blood pressure. The recess came moments after the prosecution's first witness, the widow of Michael Schwerner, had finished her emotional testimony.



The ailing defendant listened as the jury announced they were split 6-6 after less than three hours of deliberations. They did not specify what they were divided on, but said they did not think further deliberations would make a difference. Even so, Judge Gordon dismissed them for the evening on June 20, 2005.



The jury returned to deliberate on the 41st anniversary of the deaths and convicted Killen of three counts of manslaughter.



Killen's wife, Betty, hugged him after the verdict was announced. She missed a chemotherapy appointment for breast cancer treatment to attend the proceedings. Killen's sentencing was set for June 23.



As Killen was placed into custody, he pushed away microphones from reporters asking him for comment.



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