PHILADELPHIA, Miss. -- Former Klan leader and part-time preacher Edgar Ray Killen was sentenced today to 60 years in prison for his role in the 1964 murder of three civil rights activists here.
Judge Marcus Gordon handed down the maximum sentence available to him, just two days after a jury convicted Killen on three counts of manslaughter in the deaths of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman. Killen received 20 years for each of the three counts of manslaughter. The sentences are to be served consecutively.
Gordon said age should not be a factor in sentencing Killen, who is 80. He also said the lives of all three victims should be considered equally.
"Each life has a value and each life is equally as valuable as the other life," said Gordon. "There are thee lives involved in this case, and the three lives should absolutely be respected and treated equally."
At the time of their deaths, the lives of Schwerner and Goodman, who were white, would have been considered by many in Mississippi to be more valuable than Chaney's, who was black.
Center founder and chief trial counsel Morris Dees said the sentence sent a strong message.
"The judge showed he believed this was an extremely serious crime," said Dees, "and he gave the maximum sentence to prove it. Killen could have gotten a much lighter sentence, but he got the maximum."
Dees said one factor in the judge's decision was likely Killen's lack of remorse.
"I think the judge was probably influenced by one very significant thing," Dees said. "Before the sentencing, he gave both sides an opportunity to say something, and Killen didn't say anything. He showed absolutely no remorse whatsoever."
Killen was convicted Tuesday, 41 years to the day after Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman disappeared while doing civil rights work in the area. New Yorkers Goodman and Schwerner joined Chaney, a Mississippian, for the Mississippi Summer Project, also known as Freedom Summer. The Summer Project was a campaign to register black voters throughout the state.
Klansmen stopped the three as they were traveling along an isolated road and beat and shot them to death. After a massive federal investigation, their bodies were found 44 days later buried under an earthen dam. Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner are among the 40 martyrs listed on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery.
Prosecutors had asked the jury to make a statement to the world that Mississippi had changed since the Civil Rights Movement. State attorney general Jim Hood argued that Killen sanctioned the killings.
Defense lawyers have said they intend to appeal the verdict. Gordon is expected to hear a motion for a new trial on Monday.