Edgar Ray Killen was released from a Mississippi jail Friday after posting $600,000 bond while he appeals his manslaughter convictions in the 1964 killings of three civil rights workers.
The 80-year-old one-time Ku Klux Klansman, wearing street clothes, sandals and a felt cowboy hat, appeared to be in good spirits but refused to answer questions as he was taken from the Neshoba County Jail in a wheelchair. He was able to move himself from the wheelchair to the front seat of a family car.
Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon granted bail during a Friday morning hearing, saying he was convinced by testimony that Killen was neither a flight risk nor danger to the community.
“It’s not a matter of what I feel, its a matter of the law,” Gordon said in granting bail. He cited previous cases that were appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court.
Friends and family pitch in
The circuit clerk’s office said Killen, a brother and three other families — all from Neshoba County — had secured the bond with property. Frank Richardson, who attended the bond hearing, said he had put up 800 acres because Killen was a longtime friend and he wanted to help him.
Jacob Ray, a spokesman for state Attorney General Jim Hood, said his office was looking at its options with regard to the bail. He said one possibility was to appeal Gordon’s decision to the Mississippi Supreme Court.
Killen had begun serving his 60-year sentence for masterminding the 1964 slayings of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman.
His June 21 conviction came exactly 41 years after the trio was mobbed and killed on a rural road by Ku Klux Klansmen.
Jailer threatened by ‘joke’
During Friday’s bond hearing, a black jailer testified that he had felt threatened by Killen when booking him into jail after his conviction.
Kenny Spencer said that when Killen was asked a standard question for new inmates — whether he was suicidal — Killen told him, “I would kill you before I killed myself.”
Killen, who had not testified at his trial, said Friday that he did not remember making such a statement and that if he had, it should not have been taken seriously.
“Oh, it’d have to be joking,” Killen said. “I don’t do those things.”
Killen is the only person to ever face state charges in the three deaths, which shocked the nation and helped spur passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. The case was dramatized in the 1988 movie “Mississippi Burning.”
Widow of victim speaks out
Rita Schwerner Bender of Seattle, Schwerner’s widow, sent a letter to the court opposing the release. The letter was entered into the record on Friday.
“Mr. Killen has made public statements applauding the murders of my then-husband Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman,” she told the court. “By those statements, he has repeatedly let the community know that he continues to believe in the use of violence to suppress any person with whom he disagrees.”
Killen was tried in 1967 on federal charges of violating the victims’ civil rights, but the all-white jury deadlocked, with one juror saying she could not convict a preacher. Seven others were convicted, but none served more than six years.
The three civil rights workers, all in the their 20s, were investigating the burning of a black church outside Philadelphia when they were stopped on an accusation of speeding and held for hours in the Neshoba County jail.
According to witnesses, Killen rounded up carloads of Klansmen to intercept the three men upon their release and helped arrange for a bulldozer to hide the bodies. Killen then went to a Philadelphia funeral home as the attacks were taking place, witnesses said.
The bodies were found 44 days later, buried miles away in a red-clay dam.
Killen complains of poor medical care
Jewel McDonald, a member of the multiracial Philadelphia Coalition that had pushed prosecutors to reopen the case and whose mother and brother were badly beaten at the church, said Killen should have remained behind bars.
“He’s been walking free for 41 years,” McDonald said. “He may not be able to personally do anything harmful, but there are other ways of handling threats.”
Killen continues to recover from a woodcutting accident earlier this year that left him with two broken legs. On the stand, Killen complained that he had received inadequate medical attention while at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Rankin County and that the cot in his cell was causing his hip to hurt.