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Exhumation considered in Mississippi killings

The conviction last month of an ex-Ku Klux Klansman in the 1964 slayings of three civil rights workers in Mississippi may not be the end of the case.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The conviction last month of an ex-Ku Klux Klansman in the 1964 slayings of three civil rights workers in Mississippi may not be the end of the case. One victim’s brother is weighing the possibility of exhuming his body to recover bullets that might show whether more shooters were involved — and could still be alive to prosecute.

“An exhumation, I think, would be a very emotional process for my family, so we need to be clear about what our objectives are,” Ben Chaney, the brother of James Chaney, said Wednesday. “One of the objectives my family’s always had is to get the truth out.”

The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., reported Wednesday that a man who bought two guns from a suspect in the deaths of Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman is willing to allow ballistics tests on the weapons.

Dr. Michael Baden, a renowned forensic pathologist who reviewed the medical evidence for the recent murder trial of ex-Klansman Edgar Ray Killen, said there could be at least two recoverable projectiles in James Chaney’s body to be used for comparison.

Baden cautioned that even a positive ballistics match would leave important questions unanswered.

“We can’t say whose hand was on the weapon when it was fired,” Baden told The Associated Press.

Potential for bullet fragments
The three civil rights workers were ambushed near Philadelphia, Miss., by Klansmen in June 1964. The discovery of their bodies two months later in an earthen dam galvanized the civil rights movement.

Ben Chaney, speaking by telephone from his home in New York City, said he met with Baden on Tuesday to discuss his findings and possible courses of action. He said he will meet with family before making any decisions, but said identifying more shooters — even if they are now dead — might be a worthy goal.

“The truth is very important,” he said. “The truth has not been revealed.”

The gun owner’s attorney, Dick Downey of Franklin, Ky., declined to name his client or the man who sold him the .30-30 Winchester rifle and Star 9mm pistol in the late 1960s. But he told the Clarion-Ledger the seller was one of eight men acquitted in a 1967 federal conspiracy trial, and that the man has since died.

Five of the acquitted defendants are deceased.

Baden and state forensic pathologist Steven Hayne reviewed the autopsy reports in preparation for the trial of the 80-year-old Killen. They told prosecutors of the potential for more ballistics evidence.

But prosecutors opted not to order exhumations because Killen — who was convicted of manslaughter last month and sentenced to 60 years in prison — was not accused of being one of the shooters.

Hayne said Wednesday the reports suggest a “high probability” of recovering usable bullet fragments from Schwerner and Goodman as well.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood did not immediately return a message seeking comment.