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Mississippi Man Called Architect of 1964 Killings

June 16, 2005|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA, Miss. — Former Ku Klux Klansman Edgar Ray Killen went on trial for murder Wednesday with prosecutors telling jurors that he masterminded a 1964 ambush that left three civil rights workers dead and buried in an earthen dam near this rural lumber town.

Killen, 80, is the only person Mississippi has ever charged in the slayings, which galvanized the civil rights movement and helped win passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act.

In his opening statement, Mississippi Atty. Gen. Jim Hood said testimony would show that Killen, a preacher, encouraged church members to join the Ku Klux Klan.

Killen "told them that God sanctions it," Hood said.

Defense lawyer Mitchell Moran told jurors that membership in the Klan did not make Killen guilty of murder.

"The Klan is not on trial here. Being a member of the Klan is not on trial here," Moran said. "You can't hold him accountable for something he didn't plan or orchestrate."

Killen "was just a bystander in the same organization that a lot of other people were in at the same time in Neshoba County," Moran said. "As repulsive as an organization like that might be, you can't find him guilty for the crime he's charged with."

As relatives of the victims listened in the crowded courtroom, Hood laid out the events that led to the killings.

Michael H. Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, white men from New York, and James E. Chaney, a black man from Mississippi, came to Philadelphia to help register black voters during Freedom Summer in 1964.

Hood said prosecutors would show that after the three men were detained and released from the county jail on a speeding violation, they were chased and attacked by carloads of Klansmen sent by Killen.

Their bodies, badly beaten and shot multiple times, were found buried 44 days later.

Killen could get life in prison if convicted.

His state murder trial comes 38 years after a federal jury convicted seven people in Mississippi on charges of violating the three victims' civil rights.

The judge has ordered that the panel of 13 white and four black jurors not be told which 12 will decide the case and which five will serve as alternates.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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