Klan leader guilty of civil rights murder

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SAM BOWERS said once that no jury in Mississippi would ever find him guilty of killing Vernon Dahmer. But yesterday, the former Imperial Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan was convicted of murdering the civil rights leader 30 years ago, marking another painful step in the state's acceptance of its bloody and savage history.

Mr Bowers was the ringleader when a gang of white men drove to Mr Dahmer's house in 1966. They threw petrol bombs into the house and opened fire. Somehow, Mr Dahmer managed to fire back, even as the house was burning around him, allowing his wife and children to escape. But Mr Dahmer was mortally injured and died in hospital the next day.

Though others were jailed, Mr Bowers himself was tried four times but never convicted. It was just not that easy to get a conviction in Mississippi, not then, at the height of racial confrontation. Mr Dahmer's crime had been, in the eyes of the Klan, that he was allowing local black men and women to pay the two-dollar poll tax, and get the vote.

The case was reopened two years ago after a new District Attorney was elected in Forrest County, and despite threats and warnings from some in the local community, he and his team pressed ahead, charging Mr Bowers with murder and arson. They produced new witnesses who attested to Mr Bowers' role. Six whites, five blacks and an Asian formed the jury; previously, it was all white. It was just one measure of how the state has changed in three decades, negating the vision that Mr Bowers and his comrades preached.

"Justice delayed is not justice denied," said Bob Elfrich, the Assistant District Attorney who has pursued the case with dogged determination, as the jury retired to give its verdict. It took just two hours.

Mr Bowers will get an automatic life sentence, which according to the law under which he was charged means he will serve 10 years in prison. Mr Bowers is 73, and is therefore unlikely to see life outside prison again.

Mr Dahmer's widow and family were in court, and hugged as the verdict was delivered.

Circuit Judge Richard McKenzie ordered Mr Bowers to go straight to the state penitentiary, where he will serve his term.