06/13/2005

Murder Trial in '64 Civil Rights Case Under Way

PHILADELPHIA, Miss. -- Jury selection began here today in the trial of Edgar Ray Killen, a reputed former Klan leader charged with murder in the slayings of three civil rights workers 41 years ago.

Killen, an 80-year-old part-time preacher, was arrested Jan. 6 in connection with the slayings of James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. The three disappeared June 21, 1964. The ensuing 44-day search, and the gruesome discovery of their bodies buried in an earthen dam, focused national attention on the civil rights struggle in the South.

The case is one of a handful of landmark civil rights cases that have been revisited in recent years, said Mark Potok, director of the Center's Intelligence Project.

"The Killen trial is one of the last major cases of the civil rights era," Potok said. "The main famous unsolved cases of the civil rights cases have been revisited."

Since 1989, 23 murders have been re-examined in the South, resulting in 27 arrests, 21 convictions, two acquittals and one mistrial.

The Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney murders, however, are three that have continued to go unresolved.

In 1964, 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.

On June 21, as they traveled along an isolated road, they were stopped by Klansmen, beaten and shot to death.

Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner are among the 40 martyrs listed on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery.

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.

Killen is the only person ever indicted on murder charges in connection with the case.

Potok says it is important to pursue the cases to the end, even if some claim trials such as this one will open old wounds.

"I think these trials are very important, as a matter of democracy," he said. "People need to see — especially in the South — that justice does come around, even if it's greatly delayed. These trials are a moral imperative, a lot like dealing with the aftermath of apartheid in South Africa. It's a necessary thing."

Jury selection is expected to continue through tomorrow, followed by opening arguments. The trial is expected to last as long as two weeks.