New trial to be held in '63 Evers slaying

January 17, 1994|By Newsday

The assassin lay hidden in a lush green honeysuckle thicket, awaiting his victim. At 12:40 a.m., 150 feet away, a powder-blue Oldsmobile pulled into the carport of the ranch-style house at 2332 Guynes St. in Jackson, Miss. Its driver stepped from the car -- his arms laden with NAACP T-shirts intended for civil-rights demonstrators.

Now, the assassin was on his feet. He peered through the scope of his old Enfield rifle and squeezed the trigger. The bullet slammed into his victim's back and tore a half-dollar-sized hole through his chest.

Medgar Evers, a nationally known civil rights leader who headed the Mississippi branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, lay mortally wounded only feet from the door to his home.

His wife, Myrlie, and three children heard the shot and surged to his side. "Oh, my God, my God," Mrs. Evers screamed. The children shouted: "Daddy, get up. Please get up." But Mr. Evers died at 1:14 a.m. on June 12, 1963, 15 minutes after being rushed to a hospital.

His death marked the first of the political assassinations that jolted the nation in the 1960s. The killer escaped, leaving his rifle behind. But 10 days later, police arrested a white supremacist named Byron De La Beckwith and charged him with murder. Mr. De La Beckwith, who has denied killing Mr. Evers, was tried twice before all-white juries in 1964, with both cases ending in hung juries. In 1989, the indictment against him was dismissed.

But now, more than 30 years after the slaying, De La Beckwith is scheduled to stand trial for a third time, beginning tomorrow in Batesville County, Miss., on a change of venue from Jackson. Only an extraordinary sequence of events has made this belated trial possible.

The central figure in those events is a young Jackson prosecutor named Bobby DeLaughter, who was only 9 at the time of the murder and did not even hear Mr. Evers' name until he finished law school at the University of Mississippi.

In 1989, while conducting an ultimately unsuccessful investigation of purported jury tampering in Mr. De La Beckwith's second trial, Mr. DeLaughter became so fascinated by the Evers slaying that he launched a new investigation. He was permitted to do so because there is no statute of limitations on murder in Mississippi. What intrigued him, Mr. DeLaughter said, was "a flat-out, cold-blooded sniper assassination from ambush."

Mr. DeLaughter reviewed the sketchy old evidence still available: The murder weapon belonged to Mr. De La Beckwith. His fingerprint was found on the rifle's scope. Witnesses placed him and his car near the scene of the killing. He had a long record of antagonism toward blacks. Beyond that, the prosecutor faced tough going. Almost all records and exhibits in the case -- including the murder weapon -- had disappeared over three decades.

Astonishingly, Mr. DeLaughter found the rifle in his own mother-in-law's closet. Her late husband, a judge, had taken the weapon home from the Jackson courthouse years earlier as a souvenir.

Mr. DeLaughter checked the serial number and found it matched the number on Mr. De La Beckwith's rifle. Mrs. Evers produced a trial transcript when it was feared that all had been destroyed. Witnesses were tracked down, often in distant states.

Mr. DeLaughter next went looking for new witnesses.

He found a former Ku Klux Klan official who said Mr. De La Beckwith had boasted to a Klan rally about killing Mr. Evers. A former De La Beckwith tenant said Mr. De La Beckwith had made a similar boast to him. Several Jackson men told of seeing Mr. De La Beckwith at an NAACP rally the night of the murder -- at a time when Mr. De La Beckwith claimed he was home in Greenwood, Miss.

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