PHILADELPHIA, Miss. - His past as a spiritual leader of this town stripped away and replaced with an inmate's jumpsuit, 80-year-old Edgar Ray Killen was sentenced yesterday to the maximum of 60 years for the killing of three civil rights workers in 1964.
Judge Marcus Gordon ordered the penalty against the former Ku Klux Klan leader for the deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. He said Killen was receiving 20 years of punishment for each man.
"The three lives should absolutely be respected and treated equally," Gordon said, in a legal principle that is echoed in the principles that the rights workers advocated.
Outside the courthouse, Ben Chaney, the brother of James Chaney, said: "I want to thank God that today we sent preacher Killen in a prison uniform from the courthouse to the jailhouse."
Rita Schwerner Bender, the wife of Michael Schwerner, enlarged on Gordon's message.
"Every human life has value," she said, referring to Southern blacks who suffered the brutality of racist mobs without gaining the fame of her husband and his colleagues. "There are those who have fallen so far out of our consciousness that we don't even know their names."
Killen, a wrinkled figure with steely blue eyes behind thick bifocals, was silent before Gordon.
His lawyers, James McIntyre and Mitch Moran, said they would appeal the conviction on grounds that prosecutors unfairly introduced a manslaughter option to the jury only after resting their murder case.
But Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood and co-prosecutor Mark Duncan said manslaughter options are routinely introduced at the end of homicide trials.
Officials said Killen will likely be held in isolation at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Rankin County, which has wards for elderly and infirm inmates. It houses former Klan Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers. Bowers gave Killen the OK for the killing of Schwerner, prosecutors said at the trial.
Killen was in a wheelchair because his legs were broken while he was cutting timber on his land, but for 41 years after the killings he lived an active life. As a Baptist preacher, he delivered services at the funeral of Gordon's parents, who both died in 1965.
The jury of nine whites and three African-Americans found that Killen orchestrated the killings, even though he was at a funeral home as the events unfolded. Jury members said they agreed on manslaughter rather than murder because the evidence did not show that Killen directly ordered a homicide, only that he ordered beatings.
Hood said the former preacher should now come to terms with his past: "I hope at some point he realizes you don't get to heaven unless you ask for forgiveness."
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