The rights of De La Beckwith

February 28, 1994|By Gregory P. Kane

FORGIVE me if I don't lose any sleep over the constitutional rights of Byron De La Beckwith.

It took three trials for a jury to find De La Beckwith guilty of killing Medgar Evers in Jackson, Miss., June 12, 1963. Many legal experts believe the conviction will be reversed on the grounds that he was denied his constitutional right to a speedy trial.

But if anyone is overdrawn at the Bank of Constitutional Rights, it's one Byron De La Beckwith. Those shedding tears now over some perceived violation of his rights would do well to dwell on this. They would also do well to consider that the men who wrote the Bill of Rights assumed that the playing field would be level. In the Mississippi that Medgar Evers struggled to change, the playing field was anything but level. His murder was only the most prominent of scores of cases in which whites murdered blacks with impunity.

Myrlie Evers, the widow of Medgar Evers, wrote a book in 1967 called "For Us, the Living." In it she described the virtual carte blanche given to Mississippi whites to murder and abuse blacks whenever they chose. She included in the partial list of victims:

* Lamar Smith, shot to death on August 17, 1955, in broad daylight in Brookhaven, Miss. Smith's offense was registering to vote.

* Emmett Till, who was only 14 years old when he was bludgeoned and shot to death in the summer of 1955 by two white men who objected to his whistling at a white woman. Mrs. Evers says it was her husband who helped bring nationwide publicity to the Till case and graphically show the nation how Mississippi justice operated at the time. (The two men who murdered Till -- J.W. Milam and his half-brother, Roy Bryant -- got a double benefit from the horrendously skewed state justice system. They were acquitted and then paid by Look magazine to describe how they committed the ghastly crime.)

* The Rev. George Lee, killed May 7, 1955, in Belzoni by a shotgun blast as he drove his car. He, too, was a registered voter.

* Clinton Melton, shot to death Dec. 8, 1955, in Glendora. His offense seems to have been just being there.

None of these cases resulted in convictions, and in some there were no arrests. And they are only a representative sample. Mrs. Evers provided a more detailed account in her book, which should be required reading for anyone interested in the civil rights era and, apparently, for defense lawyers in general, who at times seem not to understand why the Bill of Rights was drafted.

The amendment guaranteeing a speedy trial was clearly intended so that innocent people, too poor to make bail, would not languish in jail awaiting trial. That is clearly not the case with Byron De La Beckwith. Except for a brief jail term not related to the Evers murder, he has been free as a jaybird for 31 years. So boldly did he revel in his arrogance and the old Mississippi justice system that, according to prosecutors, he couldn't resist the urge to brag about killing Evers.

Now his lawyers and others would have him go free -- yet again -- on what amounts to a very flimsy legal technicality. Maybe Myrlie Evers and her children -- who watched their father die -- can convince them that for years the state of Mississippi perverted the very meaning of the Bill of Rights. Maybe they can convince them that ours is not a perfect world.

In a perfect world, Byron De La Beckwith goes to jail back in 1964. In a perfect world, Medgar Evers doesn't get shot. But this isn't a perfect world. It is one in which Byron De La Beckwith should pay the price for murdering Medgar Evers.

Gregory P. Kane is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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