Sat, Jan 08, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Klansman indicted for murder of civil rights workers

HISTORY REVISITED Edgar Ray Killen was tried in 1967 for the murder of three civil rights workers, which ended in a hung jury. He will soon stand trial again for the slayings


More than 40 years after one of the most notorious crimes of the turbulent civil rights era -- the "Freedom Summer" slayings of three young civil rights workers -- a reputed Ku Klux Klansman was arrested on murder charges in the case.

Sheriff Larry Myers told reporters that Edgar Ray Killen was arrested at his home without incident on Thursday. Myers said there would be more arrests in connection with the killings, which were dramatized in the 1988 movie Mississippi Burning.

In 1964, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, who were helping to register black voters, were murdered on a lonely dirt road as they drove to a church to investigate a fire. They were allegedly stopped by Klansmen, beaten and shot to death. Several weeks later, their bodies were found buried in a dam a few kilometers from the church.

Nineteen men -- including Killen and many Klansmen -- were indicted. Seven were convicted of federal civil rights violations in 1967 and sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to 10 years.

Killen was freed after his trial on federal conspiracy charges ended in a hung jury.

But the state never brought murder charges against any of the men and none of those who were convicted served more than six years.

Killen's arrest followed a grand jury session Thursday that apparently included testimony from individuals believed to have knowledge of the slayings. Myers said Killen, a 79-year-old preacher, was being held on three counts of murder.

"We went ahead and got him because he was high profile and we knew where he was," the sheriff said.

Calls to Killen's home late Thursday were answered by a recording. He has always denied the slayings.

The grand jury considered whether sufficient evidence still existed after 41 years to bring charges in the crimes. Killen was identified in testimony in earlier federal court proceedings as having a role in the killings.

Jerry Killen, who identified himself as the suspect's brother, said he wasn't aware of the arrest but added that he thought it was "pitiful."

He said his brother never mentioned the 1964 slayings: "He won't talk about it. I don't know if he did it or not."

Mississippi has had some success reopening old civil rights murder cases, including a 1994 conviction of Byron de la Beckwith for the 1963 assassination of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers.

But until recently there has been little progress in building murder cases against anyone involved in the Ku Klux Klan slayings of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner -- though the case has remained very much in the public eye. Attorney General Jim Hood reopened an investigation of the slayings and just last month, an anonymous donor posted a US$100,000 reward for information leading to murder charges.

"After 40 years, to come back and do something like this is ridiculous ... like a nightmare," said Billy Wayne Posey, one of the men convicted. The graying Posey, supported by a cane, spoke while waiting to testify before the grand jury. He refused to say what he expected to be asked.

Goodman's mother, Carolyn, said she "knew that in the end the right thing was going to happen."

"As I have said many times before, I'm not looking for revenge. I'm looking for justice," Carolyn Goodman, 89, said from her home in New York.

Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were among hundreds of Freedom Summer volunteers, mostly white college students, who came to Mississippi in 1964 to educate blacks and help them to vote. The three were beaten and shot to death. Their bodies were found later in an earthen dam.

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