PHILADELPHIA, Miss. - Testimony in the murder trial of former Ku Klux Klansman Edgar Ray Killen was put on hold yesterday when the 80-year-old was rushed to a hospital by ambulance, complaining of a "smothering sensation" in his chest.
Doctors at Neshoba County General Hospital said they treated Killen for high blood pressure likely related to injuries he sustained in March when a tree he was cutting toppled on his head and broke both legs.
Though Killen's condition is "not serious," he was to spend the night in the intensive care unit as a precaution, said Dr. Patrick Eakes, the internist who is overseeing Killen's care.
"Everybody's ready to get this trial back going," Eakes said, and "if he does well during the night, he'll be released tomorrow morning."
Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon dismissed jurors about 1 p.m., telling them only that "unexpected developments" had forced him to call an early end to the day.
Killen is the only person ever charged by the state in the 1964 beating and shooting deaths of three civil rights workers helping to register black voters in Mississippi. Prosecutors say Killen organized the Klan-backed attack on Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman - white men from New York - and James Chaney - a black man from Mississippi. Their bodies were found buried deep in an earthen dam outside this rural lumber town 44 days after they disappeared.
Before court recessed yesterday, prosecutors called Rita Bender, the widow of Michael Schwerner. Now a lawyer in Seattle, Bender recalled the "constant threats" their civil rights work seemed to generate. "I'd get vile language calls saying my husband was dead or I'd better watch out because he was going to be killed," she testified.
In May 1964, Bender said, Schwerner and Chaney went to Philadelphia to talk with members of a black church about opening a community center. Two weeks after the meeting, several elderly church members were severely beaten and the church burned down.
Feeling responsible for putting the church in danger, the men returned to Philadelphia to survey the damage. They never returned home, and their burned-out station wagon was discovered days later.
Bender said she insisted on seeing it: "The tires were completely burned off. The outside paint was peeled off, and the interior was burned out It really hit me for the first time that they were dead."
Outside the courthouse, Bender said that because two of the victims were white, the case is getting the attention that others have not. "There are many [black] people who have not been treated with justice that they deserve," she said. While authorities searched for the three missing civil rights workers, she said, the bodies of two black men were pulled from a local swamp. "As far as I know, nobody was ever charged with their murder. However this trial comes out, we can't say it's over and done with."
Bettie Dahmer, whose father, civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer, was murdered by the Klan in 1966, said she will attend every day of the Killen trial to show support for the victims.
"I'm just glad I'm alive to see this day in Mississippi," Dahmer said. "People are getting a chance to receive justice they couldn't receive in the 1960s. I'm glad Mr. Killen's family can find out what kind of person he was."
Dahmer was sitting on the front row of the courtroom gallery in an area reserved for supporters and families of the victims. Every seat was filled.
Across the aisle, an equal amount of space was set aside for Killen's supporters. Except for two men sitting together at the far end, the row was empty.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.