Exactly 41 years after three young civil rights workers were ambushed and killed, a Mississippi jury convicted a one-time Ku Klux Klan leader yesterday in the notorious case that horrified the country but had never before reached a state courtroom.
A jury that one day earlier hinted it might have been deadlocked convicted Edgar Ray Killen of manslaughter in the 1964 deaths of the three men. Jurors could have found Killen guilty of murder - that they did not, relatives of the victims said, showed the difficulty even now in seeking justice for brutal civil rights-era violence.
"The fact that some of these jurors ... could not bring themselves to recognize that these were murders indicates that there are still people unfortunately among you who choose to look aside, who choose to not see the truth," Rita Bender, the widow of victim Michael Schwerner, said at a news conference. "And that means there still is much work to be done."
With the guilty verdict against him, the 80-year-old Killen joins the lineup of stooped, graying men who have been brought to courtrooms across the South in recent years and made to answer for some of the most infamous killings of the civil rights movement.
At a sentencing hearing scheduled for tomorrow, Killen faces up to 20 years on each of the three manslaughter counts. But his attorney said any prison time would effectively be a death sentence for the part-time preacher and sawmill operator. Killen, who has maintained his innocence, swatted away television cameras and microphones as he was escorted from the courthouse yesterday.
For most of his adult life, Killen has been linked to the June 21, 1964, disappearance of Schwerner, 24, James Chaney, 21, and Andrew Goodman, 20. He was one of 17 men tried in 1967 on federal charges of violating the victims' civil rights, but an all-white jury deadlocked in his case after a lone holdout said she could not convict a preacher.
Seven of the men were convicted in the federal case. None served more than six years in jail. Until Killen was charged this year as the alleged ringleader of the attack, no one had faced state murder charges in connection with the case that inspired the 1988 movie Mississippi Burning.
The jury in Killen's case, which included nine white and three black people, signaled the possibility of a second deadlocked trial late Monday when they told Judge Marcus Gordon they were split six to six. But before noon yesterday - after less than six hours of deliberations over two days - jurors agreed on a manslaughter conviction.
"For too long, we've borne the burden of what was done here by just a handful of people 41 years ago," Mark Duncan, the district attorney for Neshoba County, told reporters after the verdict. "We won't be painted and described and known throughout the world by a Hollywood movie anymore."
Duncan and Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, who led the prosecution team, said that the case was a difficult one to present after four decades had passed and a number of witnesses had either died or refused to testify, even when offered a promise of immunity.
To build their case against Killen, prosecutors relied primarily on transcripts from the 1967 federal trial, punctuated by live testimony from surviving relatives of the victims. Relatives recalled how they feared the worst when the three young men disappeared in July 1964 after stopping in Philadelphia, Miss., to investigate the burning of a black church.
As they left town, the three were stopped by a sheriff's deputy for speeding and jailed for several hours. When they were released that night, a pack of men followed them - dragging them from their car, beating them, shooting them to death on a secluded country road and burying the bodies in an earthen dam on a farm.
It took authorities 44 days to find the bodies, a search that drew the nation's attention in part because Schwerner and Goodman were both white men from New York who headed south to help register black voters as part of what was known in the civil rights movement as "Freedom Summer."
Chaney was black and from Mississippi, and joined the effort in spite of the fears of his family, his elderly mother, Fannie Mae Chaney, testified last week. She said she left Mississippi after her son's death, terrified by threats that her home would be dynamited and she would be killed.
"They said I wasn't going to be there long before I was put in a hole like James was," Mrs. Chaney said.
Speaking to reporters, Attorney General Hood said yesterday that Killen's conviction meant that justice - even if delayed - would be served. Duncan, his fellow prosecutor, was more blunt.
"It's not the perfect verdict, I suppose, that we all felt was justified," Duncan said. "But it wasn't a perfect case, either."
At trial, defense lawyer James McIntyre criticized the case as being more about politics than justice.