No emotion showed on the face of 80-year-old Killen yesterday as Judge Marcus Gordon pronounced the sentences of 20 years' confinement for each of the three counts of manslaughter, to be served consecutively. As at trial, Killen, a part-time preacher, sat in a wheelchair with oxygen tubes to his nose.
The judge acknowledged that critics may consider the sentence too long for a man already in frail health. "I know that decision of the court may be criticised. All we're trying to do is do what's right under the law and the facts of the case," he said. "The law does not recognise distinction of age."
A jury in Philadelphia, Mississippi, delivered the manslaughter convictions on Tuesday, 41 years after the killing of the three volunteers, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman. Until Killen's trial, the state had failed to bring murder charges in a case that inspired the film Mississippi Burning and helped to trigger civil rights legislation that soon afterwards ended segregation.
The trial's conclusion was seen as a further illustration of the changed face of the South. Since 1989, Mississippi has prosecuted five cases stemming from the civil rights turmoil of the Fifties and Sixties. Most notably, in 1994, another Mississippi court convicted Byron De La Beckwith of murdering the black leader Medgar Evers in 1963.
The Killen trial, meanwhile, proved traumatic for the small city of Philadelphia and for surrounding Neshoba County, where the killings took place and which for decades has been waiting for the demons of racial violence to be exorcised. Protagonists on both sides of the case had personal connections.
Even Judge Gordon and Killen were well acquainted with one another. The judge's parents used to attend the church where Killen once preached. Moreover, Killen presided at the double funeral of Judge Gordon's parents one year after the murders of the three men.
"I take no pleasure in handing down this sentence," the judge said yesterday. The three civil rights workers were investigating the torching of a local black church when their car was stopped by police and they were arrested for speeding. While they were in a prison cell, the local chapter of the KKK hatched a plan to ambush and kill them. They vanished on 21 June 1964 and their bodies were found 44 days later. They had been beaten and shot and buried in an earthen dam.
While Killen was not convicted of murdering the three young men himself, the jury considered him directly involved. Witnesses at the trial said he rounded up carloads of Klansmen so they could intercept the victims in their car. They also said Killen told some of them to wear plastic gloves during the killings and helped provide a bulldozer to bury the bodies.Reuse content