Former Mississippi Klan leader guilty of killing activists

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Rita Bender had waited more than four decades to see the man who organised the killing of her husband and his two colleagues brought to justice.

Yesterday, exactly 41 years after three civil rights activists were pulled from their car and shot dead on a back-country road in Mississippi, a sick and ageing former member of the Ku Klux Klan was convicted over their deaths.

Edgar Ray Killen, 80, sat almost motionless as the jury's verdict convicting him of three counts of manslaughter but clearing him of murder was read out in the courtroom in Philadelphia, Mississippi. He sat with an oxygen tube attached to his nose and mouth as his wife hugged him in sympathy.

Prosecutors had originally only charged Killen with murder. But while there was broad evidence of his involvement in the plot to kill the activists, prosecutors were unable to prove he had been present at the precise moment of their deaths. As a result, they also charged him with manslaughter - a charge that the panel of nine white and three black jurors apparently found easier to agree to. He faces 20 years in jail and will be sentenced on Thursday.

"The window is open, the light, has not come in completely," Mrs Bender said after the verdict was delivered. "The fact that some members of that jury have sat through that testimony and could not bring themselves to admit that those were murders, with malice, indicates that there are still people among you who choose to look aside and not see the truth and that means there is a lot more yet to be done. I would hope that this case is just a beginning and not the end."

She added: "Killen didn't act in a vacuum. The state of Mississippi was complicit in these crimes and all the crimes that occurred, and that has to be opened up."

It was on the night of 21 June 1964 that James Chaney, 21, Andrew Goodman, 20, and 26-year-old Michael Schwerner "disappeared" after driving between Philadelphia and the nearby city of Meridian. Their burnt-out car was found in a swamp and, more than 40 days later, their bodies were discovered buried at the bottom of an earth dam.

Back then, Mrs Bender was Rita Schwerner, married to her husband for little more than a year, when they both drove from their Brooklyn apartment in New York to take part in what was known as the Mississippi Freedom Summer - an effort to register black voters across the South and help force racial integration in those communities must strongly opposed to it.

Immortalised by the 1988 film Mississippi Burning, the killing of the three activists - one local black man and two white Jews - took place in a state that had few equals when it came to opposing such integration. Mrs Bender's husband, though only 26, had been identified by the Klan as a target as a result of his tireless work to register voters in Meridian.

Killen, a sawmill owner and part-time preacher who was once a senior official or Kleagle with a local chapter of the KKK, was one of 18 men originally charged over the killings. Their trial in 1967 - which followed three years of investigation and legal efforts by the federal authorities - resulted in the conviction of seven of Killen's friends but in his case a hung jury.

Killen might have lived out his years on his home outside Philadelphia, where a sign bearing the words of the Ten Commandments stands in his front garden, but for fresh evidence gathered by the state prosecutor. That emerged from an interview that another senior Klan official gave in prison and was subsequently published by the Clarion-Ledger newspaper. Subsequent inquiries led to the charging of Killen last January with one of the most high profile remaining cases from the civil rights era.

The decision to prosecute Killen four decades after the killing brought divisions to the local community.

Some argued that, for the community to put the past behind it, justice had to be seen to be done. Others - while not condoning the killings - said a trial would simply stir up old antagonisms.