Belated Justice in Mississippi

February 08, 1994

More than three decades after the original crime, the guilty verdict returned last week by a Mississippi jury in the trial of admitted white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith for the 1963 murder of civil rights worker Medgar Evers represented justice delayed but not denied. De La Beckwith was tried twice by all-white juries during the 1960s, with both cases ending in hung juries.

This time, eight of the 12 jurors were black -- a direct result of the civil rights movement Mr. Evers gave his life for -- and their decision carried a measure of credibility that all previous proceedings lacked. The trial judge immediately sentenced De La Beckwith to life in prison.

De La Beckwith refused to take the stand in his own defense this time. In previous trials he had used the courtroom as a forum to vent his segregationist views before a presumably sympathetic audience. But times have changed, even (or especially) in Mississippi. Though the state bears the heavy burden of its segregationist past, it is no longer the hotbed of racial violence and demagogy it was during the high tide of the civil rights movement.

Though the passage of time enabled the prosecution to finally win its case, it also made the victory more tenuous than it would have been if De La Beckwith had been convicted earlier. Key evidence from the previous trials had to be recovered, witnesses located, trial testimony resurrected. Jackson prosecutor Bobby DeLaughter produced new witnesses who claimed they saw De La Beckwith near the Evers home the night of the murder or heard him boast of killing Mr. Evers afterward. But some of the most damning testimony came from transcripts of previous trials because the witnesses were no longer alive or able to testify in person. The defense will surely appeal the verdict on the grounds such evidence is inadmissible.

The defense can also claim the passage of three decades between arrest and conviction violates De La Beckwith's constitutional right to a speedy trial. That has to be balanced, however, by recognition that De La Beckwith could hardly have gotten a "fair" trial in 1963. Today it is possible to convict a white man for murdering a black man, but 30 years ago some Mississippians didn't even consider that a crime. For the moment, at least, justice appears to have been done.

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