PHILADELPHIA, Miss. - The long-awaited murder trial of Edgar Ray Killen got under way yesterday with attorneys for both sides acknowledging to a racially diverse jury that the 80-year-old defendant was a member of the Ku Klux Klan when three civil rights workers were killed in 1964.
But the difference in the opening statements was that state Attorney General James Hood wants jurors to believe that Killen, a former high-ranking state leader of the white supremacist group, was responsible for seeing that "troublemakers" targeted for "elimination" were murdered.
Defense attorney Mitch Moran told the jury that Killen was just a bystander in the organization, like many other Neshoba County residents who were members. He insisted that the murders were orchestrated by Sam Bowers, the Klan's former imperial wizard who was sentenced to life in prison in 1998 for the 1966 murder of Mississippi civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer.
James Chaney, a 21-year-old African-American from Meridian, Miss., and two white men from New York, Michael Schwerner, 24, and Andrew Goodman, 20, were ambushed by a group of Ku Klux Klansman on a deserted rural road the night of June 21, 1964. After a search by the FBI, their bodies, beaten and shot, were found 44 days later in an earthen dam.
Though Hood acknowledged that Killen was not present when the murders took place, he argued that Killen was responsible for rounding up the group that killed the civil rights workers.
A panel of four blacks and 13 whites, including five alternate jurors, will decide whether Killen, now frail and in a wheelchair, will spend the rest of his life in prison or avoid the penitentiary as he did after a federal conspiracy trial in 1967. Many of the jurors appeared to be young people not yet born when the murders took place or who were too young to remember.
But the case is perhaps the best known of the civil rights murders of the 1950s and 1960s, largely because of publicity from the 1988 movie Mississippi Burning.
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