Civil Rights Trial Begins in Mississippi

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Edgar Ray Killen is charged with orchestrating the 1964 slayings of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Killen, now 80, is a former Ku Klux Klan member.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Testimony starts today in one of the South's most famous civil-rights-era murders. One-time Ku Klux Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen is on trial in Mississippi for the 1964 slayings of three civil rights workers. Prosecutors say the 80-year-old defendant orchestrated a Klan attack on the three young men, James Cheney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Defense attorneys say just because Edgar Ray Killen was in the Klan doesn't make him a murderer. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT reporting:

The side roads leading to the town square in Philadelphia are barricaded. At its center stands the red-brick Neshoba County Courthouse, where armed law officers stand at attention in the sweltering heat. Security is tight because of the historic trial occurring inside. That's also why TV crews are camped on the front lawn of the courthouse, taking shade under a giant magnolia tree.

National attention is once again focused on tiny Philadelphia, Mississippi, and the crime that happened near here 41 years ago this month. Killen is the first suspect to be charged with murder by the state of Mississippi, a fact that Neshoba County District Attorney Mark Duncan tried to downplay outside the courthouse after a biracial jury was seated to hear the case yesterday.

Mr. MARK DUNCAN (Neshoba County District Attorney): My focus is to try to hold somebody responsible for the acts that they did, whenever it was, whether it was yesterday or 40 years ago. A lot of people feel that it's a big step in Mississippi as far as where we've come, you know, from the '60s. So I realize this is an historic day, but that's not really our focus.

ELLIOTT: Duncan is working with Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, who gave the prosecution's opening statements in the brief 15 minutes allowed by Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon. Hood told jurors that the state will prove that Killen planned the murders in advance, citing a meeting where Klansmen talked about what to do about `Goatee,' as they called the bearded Schwerner, because of his voter registration activities. Hood said it was Killen who pulled together carloads of Klansmen to chase down the civil rights workers, kill them and bury their bodies. In 1967, 18 Klansmen were tried on federal civil rights charges in the case, including Killen, but a hung jury failed to convict the part-time preacher. The state is planning to use evidence from that trial, but defense lawyers are trying to limit the old federal testimony. Killen's attorneys say the state is short on proof and that being a member of the Ku Klux Klan wasn't that unusual in the 1960s.

Mr. JAMES McINTYRE (Defense Attorney): Well, he's made admissions he was affiliated with the Klan, but he did not commit the murder.

ELLIOTT: Defense lawyer James McIntyre said Killen wasn't the one calling the shots.

Mr. McINTYRE: Mr. Killen had nothing to do with orchestrating this crime, that--he was in a funeral home at the time the murder occurred, and he's not charged with a conspiracy to commit murder. He's not charged with aiding and abetting. He's charged with pulling the trigger. He wasn't there. The proof will show he wasn't there.

ELLIOTT: Killen sat at the defense table in a wheelchair. He's recovering from a tree-cutting accident that broke both his legs in March. Also in the courtroom were family members of the victims: James Cheney's brother, Ben, and Rita Schwerner Bender, widow of Michael Schwerner. Bender is expected to be among the first witnesses called by prosecutors. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Philadelphia, Mississippi.

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