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Killen's Ills Cut Trial Day Short

The murder defendant, taken to the hospital after testimony from the widow of a 1964 civil rights worker, is likely to return to court today.

June 17, 2005|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA, Miss. — Testimony in the murder trial of former Ku Klux Klansman Edgar Ray Killen was put on hold Thursday when the 80-year-old was taken to the hospital by ambulance, complaining of a "smothering sensation" in his chest.

Doctors at Neshoba County General Hospital said they treated Killen for high blood pressure probably related to injuries he sustained in March when a tree he was cutting toppled on his head and broke his legs.

Though Killen's condition was "not serious," he would spend the night in the intensive care unit as a precaution, said Patrick Eakes, the internist who is overseeing Killen's care. "Everybody's ready to get this trial back going," Eakes said. "If he does well during the night, he'll be released" this morning.

Circuit Court Judge Marcus Gordon dismissed jurors about 1 p.m., telling them only that "unexpected developments" had forced him to call an early end to the day.

Killen is the only person ever charged by the state in the 1964 beating and shooting deaths of three men who had been helping to register black voters in Mississippi. Prosecutors say Killen organized the Klan-backed attack on Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, both white New Yorkers, and James Chaney, a black Mississippian. Their bodies were found buried deep in an earthen dam outside of this rural lumber town 44 days after they disappeared.

Before court recessed Thursday, prosecutors called Michael Schwerner's widow, Rita Bender, who is now a Seattle lawyer. Bender recalled the "constant threats" their civil rights work seemed to generate.

"I'd get vile language calls saying my husband was dead or I'd better watch out because he was going to be killed," she testified.

In May 1964, Bender said, Schwerner and Chaney went to Philadelphia to talk with members of a black church about opening a community center. Two weeks after the meeting, several elderly church members were severely beaten and the church was burned down.

Feeling responsible for putting the church in danger, the men returned to Philadelphia to survey the damage.

They never made it home.

Their burned-out station wagon was discovered days later, and Bender said she insisted on seeing it. "The tires were completely burned off. The outside paint was peeled off, and the interior was burned out.... It really hit me for the first time that they were dead," she said.

Outside the courthouse, Bender said that because two of the victims were white, the case was getting attention that others had not. "There are many [black] people who have not been treated with justice that they deserve," she said. While authorities searched for the three missing civil rights workers, she said, the bodies of two black men were pulled from a local swamp. "As far as I know, nobody was ever charged with their murder. However this trial comes out, we can't say it's over and done with."

Bettie Dahmer, whose father, civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer, was murdered by the Klan in 1966, said she would attend every day of the Killen trial to show support for the victims.

"I'm just glad I'm alive to see this day in Mississippi," she said. "People are getting a chance to receive justice they couldn't receive in the 1960s. I'm glad Mr. Killen's family can find out what kind of person he was."

Dahmer was sitting in the front row of the courtroom gallery in an area reserved for the victims' supporters and families. Every seat was filled. Across the aisle, an equal amount of space was set aside for Killen's supporters. Except for two men sitting together at the far end, the row was empty.

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