Man pleads innocent in '64 civil rights slayings

Edgar Ray Killen of Union, Miss., is led out of the Neshoba County Courthouse in Neshoba, Miss., on Friday.Rogelio Solis / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Reputed Ku Klux Klan member Edgar Ray Killen responded loudly with “not guilty” three times Friday as he was arraigned on murder charges in the slayings of three civil rights workers more than 40 years ago.

Killen, handcuffed and dressed in a loosely fitting orange jail jumpsuit, lowered his voice when asked if he could afford an attorney. Kilen told Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon he couldn’t afford a lawyer but did own some land. Gordon said he would decide later whether he would appoint an attorney.

Killen was then led off to the Neshoba County Jail pending another hearing Wednesday.

Killen was arrested Thursday in the 1964 shooting deaths of James Chaney, a 21-year-old black Mississippian, and two white New Yorkers, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24. It was the first time the state has sought criminal charges in the case that outraged a nation and inspired the movie "Mississippi Burning."

Soon after Killen’s arraignment the courthouse was cleared by authorities who said they had received a bomb threat. There was no immediate word on whether a search of the building had found any suspicious devices.

In 1967, the Justice Department tried Killen and 18 other men — many of them also Klan members — on federal civil rights violations. Seven were convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to 10 years.

Killen, now 79, was freed after his trial ended in a hung jury.

Mother 'looking for justice'
Sheriff Larry Myers was initially reported as saying there would be more arrests in connection with the killings, but on Friday he said he was not referring to the 1964 murders. Eight of the 18 men who were tried on federal conspiracy charges are still alive.

“We went ahead and got him (Killen) because he was high profile and we knew where he was,” Myers said.

From her home in New York, Goodman’s mother, Carolyn, said she “knew that in the end the right thing was going to happen.” She added: “I’m not looking for revenge. I’m looking for justice.”

A black congressman who knew the three civil rights workers hailed the arrest of a suspect as “a tremendous step down a very long road.”

Rep. John Lewis told NBC’s “Today” that the arrest, and the similar reopening of other civil rights era cases in recent years, would “have a redeeming effect on the very soul of this region of our country.”

Lewis, elected to Congress from Georgia in 1986, was chairman of a leading civil right group, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, from 1963 to 1966. “It is never, ever too late to bring about justice and send the strongest possible message that bigotry and hate will not be tolerated in our society,” he said Friday.

Killen’s arrest followed a grand jury session Thursday that apparently included testimony from individuals believed to have knowledge of the slayings.

“After 40 years to come back and do something like this is ridiculous ... like a nightmare,” said Billy Wayne Posey while waiting to testify before the grand jury. One of the men convicted in federal court, Posey refused to say what he expected to be asked.

Calls to Killen’s home late Thursday were answered by a recording.

Suspect has always denied role
Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, were killed on a lonely dirt road as they drove to a church to investigate a fire. The trio allegedly was stopped by Klansmen, beaten and shot to death.

They were participating in Freedom Summer 1964, when hundreds of young, mostly white, college students came to the South to register blacks to vote and start educational programs.

Several weeks later, their bodies were found buried in a dam a few miles from the church. The case was dramatized in the 1988 movie “Mississippi Burning.”

Killen has always denied a role in the slayings.

Jerry G. Killen, who identified himself as the suspect’s brother, said he wasn’t aware of the arrest but said he thought it was “pitiful.” He said his brother never mentioned the 1964 slayings: “He won’t talk about it. I don’t know if he did it or not.”

Mississippi has had some success reopening old civil rights murder cases, including a 1994 conviction of Byron de la Beckwith for the 1963 assassination of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers.

But until recently there has been little progress in building murder cases against anyone involved in the slayings — though the case has remained very much in the public eye.

Anonymous reward
Attorney General Jim Hood reopened an investigation of the slayings and just last month, an anonymous donor posted a $100,000 reward for information leading to murder charges.

Not everyone was happy with the grand jury’s efforts.

“It appears to be a sad day for the state of Mississippi,” said attorney James McIntyre, who said he was on the defense team during the 1967 trial. “The investigation that has being brought forth — the prosecutors, news media — I just hate to see it happen.”

Ben Chaney, the younger brother of James Chaney, called the latest investigation a sham that may target one or two unrepentant Klansmen — but spare the wealthy and influential whites he claims had a hand in the slayings.

But Stan Dearman, the former editor and publisher of the weekly newspaper the Neshoba Democrat, cheered the decision as he stood in the halls of the courthouse when the grand jury met.

Dearman covered the murders for the newspaper, and in 1989 wrote an editorial calling for the reopening of the case. “I never thought I would live to see this day,” Dearman said. “It’s a good feeling.”