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Killen Gets 60 Years in '64 Killings

The judge, reared in the same Mississippi town, sets the maximum term for the ex-Klansman's role in three civil rights workers' slayings.

June 24, 2005|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA, Miss. — Gazing down at Edgar Ray Killen, who was once his parents' preacher, Neshoba County Judge Marcus Gordon on Thursday imposed the maximum sentence of 60 years in prison for the 1964 slayings of Andrew Goodman, James E. Chaney and Michael H. Schwerner. "It is my responsibility to make that decision, and I have done it," Gordon, 73, said from the bench.

The judge acknowledged that Killen was 80 years old and that he was badly injured in a March sawmill accident when a tree fell on him, breaking both his legs. Imposing the punishment gave him no pleasure, Gordon said. Then he sentenced Killen to three consecutive 20-year prison terms, one for each victim.

"Each life has value," Gordon said, "and each life is equal to other lives. There are three lives involved in this case, and three lives should be respected."

A multiracial jury on Tuesday convicted Killen, a former local recruiter for the Ku Klux Klan, on three counts of manslaughter in the crimes depicted in the film "Mississippi Burning." Prosecutors said Killen had organized a mob to kill the three young men -- two white and one black -- who were in Philadelphia to register black voters. The jurors, who were asked to consider a murder charge, opted for the lesser charge of felony manslaughter.

Killen's lawyers have said they will appeal the verdict, perhaps on the grounds that prosecutors improperly used testimony from an earlier trial in the case. They plan to petition the court Monday to release Killen on bond pending the appeal.

Gordon was an unflappable presence through the six-day trial, which drew dozens of national and international news crews to Philadelphia. In an interview after the sentencing, Gordon said he had received death threats as the trial date approached. But he said the case had not imposed a particular burden on his shoulders.

Like Killen, Gordon grew up in the hamlet of Union, Miss., about 15 miles south of here. His parents attended a church where Killen preached. When Gordon's parents died within days of each other, Killen preached at their double funeral.

"My daddy respected his church," Gordon said. "He respected his preacher."

Gordon was a 32-year-old lawyer at the time of the murders. The killings and their aftermath, he said, unfairly stained the reputation of the community.

"That was not the act of Neshoba County. That was the act of a small, howling mob," Gordon said. "You have to look at yourself in the mirror before you say that the people of Neshoba County are backward and prejudiced."

In 1975, Gordon also prosecuted Killen on felony charges of telephone harassment. Killen was convicted in that case, and served five months at Parchman Penitentiary.

Killen arrived at the sentencing hearing Thursday in a bright yellow prison jumpsuit, without the oxygen tube he had worn the day of the verdict. After the hearing, Betty Jo Killen ran to her husband's side and kissed him three times before he was taken to the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility. Oscar Kenneth Killen, his brother, watched expressionless, and then commented that the judicial process had been tainted by money.

"Money will do anything," he said.

Rita Schwerner Bender, Schwerner's widow, said afterward that the judge's comments about the value of a life struck home. Bender has complained that many civil rights-era crimes have not received the attention that her husband's killing did, and that state and local authorities have never been held accountable for sanctioning and participating in crimes of that era. Gordon, she said, "recognized that no one is valued more than others. Not only these men, but all the other people who were murdered and brutalized, they were all mothers' sons.

"If this verdict is a beginning, if the sentence is a beginning, helping to open up what happened in this state -- that is important," Bender said.

John Keith Henry, a friend of Killen's from Union, said he had heard grumbling among his auto shop customers, who thought Gordon had gone too far by ordering Killen to serve the sentences consecutively.

"That's what has people angry around here," said Henry. "That's vengeance, right there."

Killen will be held for four weeks at the correctional facility while authorities evaluate him for psychological and medical needs. Commissioner Chris Epps of the Mississippi Department of Corrections told Reuters that Killen would be held in solitary confinement, under a special status reserved for prisoners at risk of violent retaliation by other inmates. He will spend 23 hours a day in his cell, with one hour for hygiene or recreation.

It is the same facility that holds Sam Bowers, who was Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in 1964 and reportedly instructed Killen to organize the murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. Bowers is serving a life sentence in a 1966 firebombing that killed civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer.

Atty. Gen. Jim Hood, who prosecuted the Killen case, said the Klan no longer exists as an organized force in Mississippi. But, he said, Bowers and Killen have never exhibited anything but defiance to the state.

"At some point, there's got to be some remorse," Hood said. "You don't go to heaven unless you admit what you've done and ask for forgiveness."

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