June 21, 2005: On the 41st anniversary of the murder of three civil rights workers, Edgar Ray Killen was found guilty in state court of three counts of manslaughter. The jury, consisting of 9 white jurors and 3 black jurors, rejected the charges of murder, but found him guilty of recruiting the mob that carried out the killings.
He appealed the verdict, but his sentence of three multiplied by 20 years in prison was upheld on January 12, 2007, by the Mississippi Supreme Court.
Edgar Ray “Preacher” Killen is a former Ku Klux Klan organizer who conspired in the murders of three civil rights activists—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner—in 1964.
Trial in 1966:
At the time of the murders, the state of Mississippi made little effort to prosecute the guilty parties. The FBI, under the pro-civil-rights President Lyndon Johnson and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, conducted a vigorous investigation.
Federal prosecutor John Doar circumvented dismissals by federal judges and opened a grand jury in December 1964. In November 1965, Solicitor General Thurgood Marshall appeared before the Supreme Court to defend the federal government’s authority in bringing charges. Eighteen men, including Killen, were arrested and charged with conspiracy to violate the victims’ civil rights in United States v. Price.
The trial began in 1966 in the federal courthouse in Meridian, Mississippi, before an all-white jury that convicted seven conspirators, including the deputy sheriff, and acquitted eight others. It was the first time a white jury convicted a white official of civil rights killings.
For three men, including Killen, the trial ended in a hung jury, with the jurors deadlocked 11–1 in favor of conviction. The lone holdout said that she could not convict a preacher. The prosecution decided not to retry Killen and he was released. None of the men found guilty would serve more than six years in prison.
Over 20 years later, Jerry Mitchell, an award-winning investigative reporter for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, wrote extensively about the case. Mitchell had already earned fame for helping secure convictions in other high profile Civil Rights Era murder cases, including the assassination of Medgar Evers, the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, and the murder of Vernon Dahmer.
Conviction and Prison:
He was found guilty of 3 counts of manslaughter on June 21, 2005, 41 years to the date of the murders. He was sentenced on June 23, 2005, by Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon to the maximum sentence of 60 years in prison, 20 years for each count of manslaughter, to be served consecutively. He will be eligible for parole after serving at least 20 years. At the sentencing, Judge Gordon stated that each life lost was valuable, and he said that the law made no distinction of age for the crime and that the maximum sentence should be imposed regardless of Killen’s age.
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