Video: Drama at 'Mississippi Burning' trial

updated 6/16/2005 9:44:51 PM ET 2005-06-17T01:44:51

One-time Klansman Edgar Ray Killen was removed from court on a stretcher and treated for high blood pressure Thursday, the opening day of testimony in his trial for the 1964 killings of three civil rights workers.

The court went into recess to await Killen's return, but not before courtroom observers wept as the widow of one of the slain men described her reaction when her husband's car was found, burned and abandoned, in the Mississippi countryside.

Killen, 80, was in court Thursday morning as the judge dealt with procedural matters. But he was taken out of the room after he reported feeling a “smothering sensation,” defense attorney James McIntyre said.

Testimony continued for about 45 minutes as Killen was examined elsewhere in the courthouse. But when an ambulance was summoned to take Killen to the hospital, Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon stopped the trial and told jurors court would remain in recess until later Thursday.

The trial later went into recess until at least Friday, depending on Killen’s ability to attend.

The part-time preacher and sawmill operator has been attending court in a wheelchair while he recovers from broken legs suffered in a March woodcutting accident. A nurse sits nearby in court.

‘Alert and pleasant’
Dr. Patrick Eakes, director of the intensive care unit at Neshoba County General hospital, described Killen as “alert and pleasant” but said he would remain there overnight.

He said Killen arrived at the hospital with elevated blood pressure and complained of a headache and discomfort in his chest. Eakes said Killen would be examined early Friday to see if he could be released.

Killen is charged with killing James Chaney, a black man from Mississippi, and Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, white men from New York, all of whom were beaten and shot to death in a case dramatized in the 1988 movie “Mississippi Burning.” Their bodies were found 44 days later, buried in an earthen dam.

On Thursday morning, Michael Schwerner's widow, Rita Schwerner Bender, led the jury through the events that sent her husband into the waiting arms of the Ku Klux Klan four decades ago.

Voter registration stirred racial tension
The white-haired, composed Bender said she left Mississippi after working to register black voters, but that her husband returned to the state on June 20, 1964, after learning that a rural black Neshoba County church had been burned. She said he believed voter registration work in that area had triggered the attack.

Video: Revisiting 1964

Bender described her reaction when she learned that a blue station wagon the three men had been using when they disappeared had been found, burned and abandoned.

“I think it hit me for the first time that they were dead, that there was really no realistic possibility that they were alive,” she said.

The courtroom, including about 60 spectators sprinkled among the media and law enforcement officers, was silent as she described her efforts to find her husband. A few wiped away tears.

The killings of the three young men during the “Freedom Summer” of 1964 galvanized the civil rights movement and helped win passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act that same year.

Killen's name has been associated with the slayings from the outset. FBI records and witnesses indicated he organized the carloads of men who followed Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner and stopped them in their station wagon.

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