PHILADELPHIA, Miss. -- Forty-one years to the day after three civil rights workers were killed here, former Klan leader and part-time preacher Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of manslaughter in connection with their deaths.
While rejecting more serious murder charges against Killen, a jury of nine whites and three blacks found Killen guilty on their second day of deliberations.
To date, Killen is the only person ever indicted on murder charges in the case. Although some might be disappointed by the manslaughter verdict, Center founder and chief trial counsel Morris Dees said the jury's decision was better than a hung jury.
"This verdict says a whole lot about what's going on in Mississippi," said Dees. "There was a very real likelihood of a deadlocked jury. I'm happy that there is a guilty verdict. Clearly this man is guilty of cold-blooded murder."
Civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner 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 under an earthen dam. Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner are among the 40 martyrs listed on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery.
Killen, 80, was arrested Jan. 6 in connection with their deaths. He showed no emotion as the verdict was read today. During the trial, Killen's lawyers admitted he was in the Klan but argued that his Klan membership alone did not make him guilty of murder.
Prosecutors asked the jury to make a statement to the world that Mississippi had changed since the Civil Rights Movement. During closing arguments, Attorney General Jim Hood argued that Killen sanctioned the killings.
Killen's arrest marks the first time the state of Mississippi has brought criminal charges in connection with the case. In 1967, federal conspiracy charges were brought against 18 suspects. Seven of the suspects were convicted on charges of violating the activists' civil rights. Eight suspects were acquitted, and three, including Killen, were released when their cases ended in mistrials after juries deadlocked.
None of those convicted spent more than six years in prison, and the state never, until now, charged any of them.
Dees said Killen could have stood trial earlier than 41 years after the murder, and should have.
"There's no reason this case couldn't have been brought 20 years ago," Dees said. "Killen would have been 60, and a lot more people would have been able to testify back then. Twenty years ago you might have gotten a different verdict."