In 1964, three civil rights workers—James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman—were murdered in Neshoba County by a mob of Klansmen and buried 15 feet underground. Their bodies were found 44 days later. Now 40 and a half years after the murder, a grand jury has returned the first-ever murder indictment in the murder case, presented by Mississippi Attorney General Jim Jim and District Attorney Mark Duncan. The man who allegedly engineered the slayings, Edgar Ray "Preacher" Killen, might finally be brought to justice. He was arrested late Thursday, Jan. 13.
Generally, in capital cases such as this, evidence from the state is presented to a grand jury, a panel of about 20 people. They decide based on the evidence presented whether or not the case is worth an indictment. In this case it was. (Reportedly, grand jurors walked around the courthouse shaking hands after the indictment.) The sheriff's office then makes the arrest and the defendant is arraigned.
"I think it is wonderful. It needed to be done 40 years ago," said Neshoba Countian Fent Deweese, an attorney who served on the mixed-race Philadelphia Coalition, which called for justice in the case last year. "It will move forward from here and go to trail. Though I don't know the evidence at this point, I know that there is something; otherwise they would not be bringing this forward."
The 79-year-old Baptist preacher pleaded "not guilty" to three counts of murder on Friday in front of Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon. Gordon, apparently skeptical that Killen is not destitute, said he hadn't decided whether to appoint an attorney, and ordered Killen held without bond. There will be a bond hearing for Killen on Wednesday, Jan. 12.
Of the 18 men were tried in 1964 by the federal government for violating the men's civil rights (including Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey and Deputy Cecil Price, both now decased), seven excluding Killen are still alive. Killen, however, is the only one indicted, so far. Testimony in the federal trial in the 1960s indicated that Killen was the Neshoba County liaison with the Laurel, Miss., mastermind of the murders, Sam Bowers, and executed the plan in Neshoba County, giving the orders and timetable for the murders and the disposal of the bodies. He is believed to have left before the murders took place and gone to the funeral home where he registered in two different parlors.
James Chaney's brother, Ben, has mixed feelings about the arrest. Though Chaney says that it is never too late, he complains that justice is not truly being served and that others should be prosecuted. "There is no statute of limitations on murder. The only problem is when you create a charade and call it justice. If the state attorney general was honorable in his actions, then he would have turned over everything to the FBI. Then the FBI would have conducted the investigation," Chaney said in an interview. He said people such as himself would not question the case had the FBI come away with just enough evidence to indict Killen. But the doesn't trust the state.
"The attorney general is only protecting the interests of the rich and powerful, Chaney said.
Civil rights veteran David Dennis says he has mixed feelings also, but for different reasons. "First of all, I can't say that I am not happy, but I am not completely satisfied because this man has lived out his entire life. Also, we cannot just concentrate on Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner and forget the others whose killers are still unknown," Dennis said this week.
Others expressed feelings of pure joy, such as Yolanda Jones, a Mississippi Valley State University professional counselor. "I am very excited. I think that it is never too late for justice!" said Jones with a squeal. Last fall, Jones brought a group of Valley students to participate in the march against Killen's planned booth at the State Fair.
Martha Bergmark of the Mississippi Center for Justice said that the case could be an important step forward. "I think that it will be exciting if this begins the racial reconciliation process much like in South Africa."
Others agreed. "I hope that this starts the healing process that we needed during the Civil Rights Movement," Bonnie Harris of Mississippi Move said.
After the bond hearing this week, Killen's case will enter the pre-trial mode with hearings about what pieces of evidence will be permissible in trial. Jury selection begins with a pool of registered voters. Jakob Ray of the attorney general's office said the jury is expected to be one of different racial backgrounds. In the 1960s, an all-white jury heard the federal civil rights case.