Jury Selection Begins in Killen Trial

In 1964, three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Miss., were found dead. Today, after more than 40 years, the man accused of coordinating the attacks, Edgar Ray Killen, goes on trial for murder.

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A trial begins in Mississippi today for an 80-year-old man charged in one of the nation's most notorious civil rights murders. Reputed KKK leader Edgar Ray Killen is accused of killing Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman. The three civil rights workers were in Neshoba County, Mississippi, in 1964 to register voters. NPR's Debbie Elliott has this report on what it takes to bring a 40-year-old crime to court.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT reporting:

Mississippi's own William Faulkner wrote, `The past is never dead. It's not even past.' It's a line people here often quote when talking about the Neshoba County murders, a crime that galvanized national attention on the violent resistance to equal rights in the South. The three young men, two white and one African-American, disappeared one June night after a run-in with sheriffs' deputies near the east Mississippi town of Philadelphia.

(Soundbite of report)

Unidentified Man: Three civil rights workers have disappeared in Mississippi last Sunday night and still have not been heard from. A search has thus far produced only one clue, the burned-out station wagon in which the three were last seen riding. There is little hope that they are still alive.

ELLIOTT: Forty-four days later they were found shot to death and buried beneath a red clay dam off a remote country road. This story was later made famous by the movie "Mississippi Burning," which took its name from the FBI file on the case. In 1967, the federal government tried 18 men on civil rights charges connected to the case. Seven were convicted and spent up to six years in prison. Eight of the suspects were acquitted. Hung juries resulted in mistrials for three others including the alleged coordinator of the attack, Edgar Ray Killen. Members of the all-white jury say despite evidence that Killen organized the group of Klansmen to, quote, "eliminate" Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, one juror refused to convict Killen because he was a preacher. The ordained Baptist minister now faces three counts of murder, the first the state has ever brought in the case.

Mr. STANLEY DEARMAN (Former Editor, The Neshoba County Democrat): History apparently was going to record--unless something was done, was going to record that the state of Mississippi and this community never did its duty in seeking justice.

ELLIOTT: Stanley Dearman is the former editor of The Neshoba County Democrat and part of a local coalition that called for prosecutions.

Mr. DEARMAN: It's sort of the last big case to be brought before the bar of justice.

ELLIOTT: In the last decade, Southern prosecutors have won convictions in several high-profile civil rights cases including the murders of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and four girls in a Birmingham church bombing. Former US attorney Doug Jones prosecuted that case. He says the passage of time has helped bring justice.

Mr. DOUG JONES (Former US Attorney): Well, I think what has to happen has happened over time, and that is a change of attitude. I don't think people come into court with that same kind of racial hatred, bitterness, prejudice that they had in the 1960s. And also another factor is fear.

ELLIOTT: Jones says, in the '60s, juries, and even witnesses, were intimidated by the Klan, and are more likely to come forward today, helping investigators find that new piece of information that can revive cases. Time also has a way of softening those who refused to cooperate in the '60s. In the Neshoba County case, at least one of the nine suspects still living had started to talk to investigators. Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood.

Mr. JIM HOOD (Attorney General, Mississippi): Cecil Price was the reason this investigation was reopened in 1999. He was the deputy sheriff who initially made the arrest of the three victims and took them to jail and--well, I can't actually go into his role any further than that, but that was a strong bit of evidence.

ELLIOTT: Price has since died after falling off a lift, so prosecutors won't have his testimony in Killen's trial. Hood hasn't had much luck getting the other suspects to talk.

Mr. HOOD: You know, unfortunately, they will probably take this to their deathbeds.

ELLIOTT: Hood says none of them has shown remorse.

Mr. HOOD: Some believe that--through their religion, that they were doing the right thing, and it's kind of like brainwashing. Some of them, over time, have convinced themselves that they had nothing to do with it. Some still think they did nothing wrong, there wasn't anything wrong with killing somebody that was down here stirring up problems.

ELLIOTT: Others all these years later have had a change of heart. Bob Stringer, as a teen-ager, worked for the leader of the Mississippi Klan, handing out fliers and running errands for Grand Wizard Sam Bowers. In 1998, Bowers was convicted for the 1966 murder of Hattiesburg NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer. That conviction would not have happened without Stringer's testimony, says Dahmer's son, Vernon Jr.

Mr. VERNON DAHMER Jr.: Bob had a chance to be in the presence of the meetings, at least one meeting, or maybe more than one meeting, when they were planning the murder of my dad.

ELLIOTT: Stringer had kept quiet during the '60s, but, some 31 years later, contacted Vernon Dahmer Jr., after seeing him on television pleading for help to revive the investigation into his dad's murder.

Mr. DAHMER: Bob felt a need to come forward and just kind of clear his conscience.

ELLIOTT: At the time, Stringer was in a 12-step program for gambling addiction. He met Dahmer at a motel on the Mississippi coast and provided the first-hand information that broke the case. Dahmer says it's important for authorities not to give up on other unsolved civil rights era murder cases for the sake of the victims.

Mr. DAHMER: To have the justice system treat us like they treat other citizens at this day and time, to me, was a great relief and an achievement. And when you think about it, that's what my dad gave his life for, but it took us 32 years to get it.

ELLIOTT: Still, there are those in Mississippi who believe it is too late to achieve any real justice for crimes that occurred so long ago.

Mr. JAMES McINTYRE (Attorney): Well, the state of Mississippi needs to go forward, not backwards.

ELLIOTT: Attorney James McIntyre is on Edgar Ray Killen's defense team. He says there's no way his client can get a fair trial.

Mr. McINTYRE: All our witnesses are dead and that brings a lot of things to light. I mean, the Constitution says you have a fair and speedy trial. You know, justice delayed is justice denied, and 40 years, I would suggest that it's denied.

ELLIOTT: He thinks the state is prosecuting because of political pressure. Rocking back and forth in a leather chair at a conference table in his Jackson office, the white-haired McIntyre leans in and suggests the trial could backfire.

Mr. McINTYRE: All it does is reopen the old wounds for the rest of the country. And another thing is: Suppose I win this case? What are they going to think about us then? Hmm? Are we going to be a bunch of devils down here?

ELLIOTT: Killen is in a wheelchair, recovering from two broken legs he suffered cutting down a tree in March. The Neshoba County judge hearing his case has agreed to provide special accommodations for his frail medical condition, including a private room with a bed at the courthouse and frequent breaks during the trial.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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