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Thursday, June 23, 2005

A Verdict in Mississippi - New York Times

A Verdict in Mississippi - New York TimesJune 23, 2005
A Verdict in Mississippi

The name Neshoba County, Mississippi, became synonymous with publicly sanctioned murder when a sheriff's deputy conspired with the Klan to kill three young civil rights workers during the summer of 1964. The slaughter of James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner became known not just for its brutality but also for the conspiracies of silence and inaction that developed inside Mississippi itself and protected the murderers by pushing the case out of public view.

This week's conviction of Edgar Ray Killen, an 80-year-old former Klansman, brings the case to a conclusion of sorts and affords some solace to the survivors of the dead. But the lingering mystery about why the state took 40 years to bring its first charges will very likely prevent this case from achieving the definitive end that the prosecutors and citizens of Neshoba County were hoping for.

When Mississippi initially failed to act against the killers, the federal government intervened and gathered evidence enough to charge 18 people in 1967. Seven of them went to prison for brief sentences, but Mr. Killen, who was said to have recruited the mob, went free when an all-white jury deadlocked in his case.

Despite the evidence laid out in the federal case, it was not until earlier this year that Mississippi could rouse itself to indict even a single person in connection with these heinous crimes. By that time, memories of the living had faded and three crucial witnesses were dead.

Faced with a weakened case and testimony of witnesses now beyond the grave, jurors failed to convict on the primary charge of murder and settled instead on manslaughter.

The conviction of the ailing and infirm Mr. Killen is very likely the final act in one of the most notorious murder cases of the civil rights era. The underlying lesson of the case, however, is that justice delayed is quite often justice denied.

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