Killen Convicted of Manslaughter in 1964 Slayings

Killen Convicted of Manslaughter in 1964 Slayings (Update4) June 21 (Bloomberg) -- Edgar Ray Killen, an 80-year-old former preacher, was convicted of manslaughter in the 1964 deaths of three civil-rights workers in Mississippi after jurors rejected murder charges pressed by prosecutors. Killen was accused of organizing Ku Klux Klan members who ambushed and killed James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner outside Philadelphia, Mississippi. State Attorney General Jim Hood won Killen's indictment in January, reviving the case after pleas from the victims' relatives. The verdict comes on the 41st anniversary of the trio's disappearance. ``I hope that this conviction helps to shed some light on what has happened in this state,'' Rita Bender, 63, Schwerner's widow, said at a press conference following the verdict. ``I see it as a very important first step.'' The deaths helped galvanize support for the movement to win voting rights for blacks and became the subject of the 1988 film ``Mississippi Burning.'' Killen's attorneys acknowledged for the first time during the trial that he had belonged to the Klan. A federal jury found in 1967 that the white-supremacist group had ordered Schwerner's death. Jurors told Judge Marcus Gordon late yesterday that they were split 6-6 on murder charges after the first few hours of deliberations. Killen faces a maximum of 20 years in prison on each of the three manslaughter counts. Murder convictions would have carried potential life sentences. Hood lauded the verdict as ``justice for all in Mississippi.'' The attorney general had attempted to bring to trial the eight survivors of 18 men accused in 1967 of taking part in the killings. Of those still alive, Killen was the only one indicted. ``This murder was not sanctioned by God,'' Hood said. ``It was sanctioned by evil men and one of them will have to pay for that crime now.'' Life in Jail Killen who suffers from osteoarthritis, was remanded to the custody of the sheriff's department after the verdict and taken from the courtroom in a wheelchair. ``He'll spend the rest of his life in jail,'' said Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi NAACP. Gordon told spectators to remain quiet before the verdict, noting that it came on the anniversary of the disappearance of the three civil-rights workers, who were in Mississippi to register black voters. The trial in Philadelphia, a town of about 7,300 people, attracted international media coverage. ``There's always a lot of feeling and emotion in the trial of any case, and certainly of a case such as this,'' Gordon said, warning spectators that about 17 uniformed state troopers and local police officers were on guard to quell outbursts. The three victims had been arrested by police and released, then caught and killed by Klansmen, according to investigators. Chaney, 21, who was black, was beaten to death. Goodman, 20, and Schwerner, 24, both white, were shot. Their bodies were found after a 44-day search, buried in an earthen dam. Hood told jurors that Killen at the time led a new Klan chapter in nearby Meridian. Killen rounded up volunteers for a church-burning that Schwerner's group was investigating and gave orders on the day of the ambush, including a command to buy gloves, Hood said. ``All things considered, I think the compromise of three counts of manslaughter was the best that we can hope for,'' said Connie Curry, 70, a writer and filmmaker who met Schwerner while spending the summer of 1964 in Jackson, Mississippi, helping to desegregate schools. ``It's good for the soul of this country to have people brought to justice, even 40 or 50 years later.'' Klan `Bystander' One of Killen's attorneys, Mitchell Moran, argued during the trial that his client was only a ``bystander'' in the Klan. Moran instead blamed the murders on former Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, now serving a life sentence for a 1966 firebombing that killed civil-rights activist Vernon Dahmer. Killen was among 18 men charged in the 1967 federal case with violating the activists' civil rights. Seven were convicted, including Bowers, and Killen's case ended in a hung jury after one juror refused to convict a preacher. The other 10, including the county sheriff, were acquitted. ``This is the beginning of the healing of Mississippi,'' said Deborah Owen, a Philadelphia resident. ``For once, the state of Mississippi says, `We acknowledge the past.''' To contact the reporters on this story: Sophia Pearson in Philadelphia, Mississippi, at Last Updated: June 21, 2005 23:07 CET #