‘Mississippi Burning’ Trial of former KKK Member Comes to a Close

June 20, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: The crowd that gathered in Philadelphia, Mississippi, yesterday came to pay their respects to the victims of a 41-year-old crime. Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, three members of the wave of young people who came to register black voters in June 1964, were murdered that Freedom Summer, shot and buried underneath a 15-foot earthen dam. The car carrying the young civil rights workers was found burned. Reports said as many as 22 members of the local Ku Klux Klan were responsible. Leading civil rights activists descended on the small town.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: In this county, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner were brutally murdered, and I believe in my heart that the murderers are somewhere around me at this moment.

GWEN IFILL: An all-white jury convicted seven men on conspiracy charges related to the case in 1967. None served more than six years. But jurors deadlocked over charges against Edgar Ray Killen, a part-time preacher and Klan member. It was not until 1999 that he was charged with orchestrating the murders.

Today, the 80-year-old Killen, who still denies any role in the crimes, faces the prospect of life in prison after a week-long trial. James Earl Chaney’s mother, now 82 years old, testified the Klan continued to threaten her even after her son’s death.

FANNIE LEE CHANEY: They was threatening me so bad, me and my little son, Ben. They told me they were going to put dynamite under the house, blow us to bits and everything.

GWEN IFILL: Killen’s sister and brother testified on their sibling’s behalf, maintaining his innocence.

ATTORNEY: Did you know that Edgar Ray was in the Klan?

OSCAR KILLEN: No, sir. I didn’t even know that. I’ve heard more talk that your daddy and granddaddy was in the Klan more than I have him. Sure have, that’s honest. I swore on the Bible, gentlemen. That’s the way I’ve heard it all these years.

GWEN IFILL: A former Philadelphia mayor also defended Killen today, testifying that the Ku Klux Klan is “a peaceful organization” that “did a lot of good.” The jury began its deliberations late today.

Jerry Mitchell, a reporter with The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, has been digging into closed civil rights-era murder cases for more than 15 years, reporting that has led to the reinvestigation of more than 20 cases. He’s been covering the Killen trial and joins us from Philadelphia, Mississippi. Welcome, Jerry.

JERRY MITCHELL: Good to be here.

GWEN IFILL: Tell us a little bit about this trial to catch us up. Was there any new evidence that was provided during this week-long trial?

JERRY MITCHELL: Well, there was a man who was an inmate named Mike Winstead, who came forward and said that Killen, when he was ten years old, Killen had showed up at his grandfather’s house, and his grandfather asked him if he had anything to do with killing those boys, and Killen replied, “Yes, and I’m proud of it,” according to Mr. Winstead.

And then Mike Hatcher who did testify in ’67, testified in this trial, but I’d have to say his testimony is far stronger, I think, than it was back in ’67 in terms of more details and things like that, which, of course, the defense tried to make hay of today.

GWEN IFILL: Jerry Mitchell, it’s been 40 years since this crime happened. There have been other trials which didn’t quite get to the nub of this murder charge. How did the case — how was the case reconstructed after all this time? There are people who are dead.

JERRY MITCHELL: Absolutely. Well, the thing that really helped this case is the fact that there was a transcript. And so there are a number of witnesses that the state used who are basically transcript witnesses, the people who testified in the 1967 federal conspiracy trial whose testimony then was used in this trial.

Without that, this case wouldn’t be going forward. And that’s really been a key element. And that’s one of the reasons why some of these other cases are so difficult to bring forward; if there wasn’t a good investigation or if there wasn’t a trial at the time, that makes it particularly difficult to bring a case now.

GWEN IFILL: After all this time also, why now? Why…how did this trial come to court now after all this time?

JERRY MITCHELL: Well, a group of citizens here in Philadelphia called the Philadelphia Coalition basically began to call for justice in this case early last year. In addition to that, you have a new district attorney, Mark Duncan, a new attorney general, Jim Hood, who said today in closing arguments he wished his predecessors had taken on this case but didn’t. And so he felt it was his obligation to take it on.

GWEN IFILL: I was watching a little bit of the feed from the courtroom today and I noticed Edgar Killen was asleep for some of the closing arguments. How was he able to defend himself, or did he?

JERRY MITCHELL: Well, mainly he slept during the transcript testimony as far as I saw. I did notice he was alert at the point that Mr. Hood pointed at him and called him a coward. I noticed that he kind of perked up at that point.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Hood is…?

JERRY MITCHELL: The attorney general, Jim Hood.

GWEN IFILL: Was there any effort at all or thought given to putting him on the stand to defend himself?

JERRY MITCHELL: The defense said there wasn’t really any need. They felt like the state had a weak case and therefore that there wasn’t any need for him to get up and to rebut any kind of testimony. But of course there’s always the risk any time the defense puts a defendant on the stand that he may say something that really makes him look bad or put him in a bad light. Plus, he has a previous…

GWEN IFILL: Go ahead.

JERRY MITCHELL: A previous conviction, too, so. He has a previous conviction.

GWEN IFILL: Right. He has said in the past that he had nothing to do with this actual murder that night —

JERRY MITCHELL: That’s right.

GWEN IFILL: — that he was actually at a funeral home sitting with a friend or something like that.


GWEN IFILL: But how is it that…his siblings obviously testified. The former mayor of Philadelphia testified today. And we mentioned that he defended the Klan. What else came out in that testimony?

JERRY MITCHELL: Yes, he did. What’s that again?

GWEN IFILL: I’m sorry, I know there are trucks and traffic passing you by. What else came out of that testimony?

JERRY MITCHELL: Well, just the brother of the convict who testified who said he overheard the testimony said that his brother was a liar, basically is what he said. He said he saw him on TV and said he’s lying and contacted the defense. Under cross-examination he did admit that he’s friends with Mr. Killen. But said, you know, that still his brother is a liar.

GWEN IFILL: James McIntyre, Mr. Killen’s defense attorney, as part of his closing statement said, “We don’t live 41 years ago.” Was there any sense in this city and the county that this was just old business?

JERRY MITCHELL: Yes. I mean, I think you’ve got a real split on people. I mean, certain people feel like it’s just that. “Let’s just leave it alone. Why do we have to be talking about this? This is living in the past.” And then, on the other hand, you’ve got people who, like the Philadelphia Coalition, who feel like, “Hey, this is a black cloud hanging over our heads. It hasn’t been taken care of. We need to do something about it.”

GWEN IFILL: Did the prosecutor in the end prove who pulled the trigger that night?

JERRY MITCHELL: Not really. I think it’s pretty widely known, but I think that they were just trying to show as they explained the role of Mr. Killen, and so in terms of identifying who the shooters were, I don’t know if that’s necessary. They’re not saying he was there that night. They’re saying he kind of orchestrated the events. And as I mentioned, they referred to him as a coward several times in the closing arguments.

GWEN IFILL: Is there any way to tell looking at that jury as they’re listening to these arguments that that was enough of a case to make?

JERRY MITCHELL: I think the jury seemed very attentive. They looked very attentive and seemed to be focused on the lawyers as they made their arguments, so I think this looks like a pretty good jury. We’ll just have to see, though.

GWEN IFILL: Yeah. As we’ve listened to the testimony, especially from family members of the victims, what have we learned in this trial, new or relearned, about the three men who were victimized in this case, Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman?

JERRY MITCHELL: Well, I think one of the more poignant moments was where Caroline Goodman, the mother of Andy Goodman, read the postcard that he wrote the day he died, the morning of the day he died in Mississippi. And it sounded like a postcard a kid might write from summer camp. “Hi, Mom, Dad, I’m doing great. This town is great. We’re having a good time.” And I think any parent hearing that note, it was just so touching and poignant by simplicity. And attorney General Jim Hood used that, read that postcard in his closing argument to the jury.

GWEN IFILL: And when you look back, you said that he wrote in the postcard, “This seems like a pretty good town.” Forty years later, forty-one years later, how is this town… is the town going to be divided over this or is this something everyone is anxious to put behind them?

JERRY MITCHELL: Well, I think they’re probably uniform in wanting to get it behind them. I think you’ve probably got unity in that question. But obviously they’re split in how to pull that off. But I think this town has changed a tremendous amount. I think it’s so easy to see the movie like “Mississippi Burning” and think, “Oh, that’s the way Philadelphia is today.”

It’s just not true. Philadelphia is a diverse place of white, black, African-American. Mississippi now has more black elected officials than any other state. So Mississippi’s changed and Neshoba County’s changed. And we’ll just have to wait and see if the jury feels like that enough evidence has been presented to convict Mr. Killen or if the state has failed its burden of proof.

GWEN IFILL: Jerry Mitchell, thanks for all your good work.