Preacher charged with 'Mississippi Burning' murders

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The Independent US

A crime from an uglier time returned to the American South yesterday when a 79-year-old former member of the Ku Klux Klan was charged over one of the most notorious set of killings from the civil rights era.

A crime from an uglier time returned to the American South yesterday when a 79-year-old former member of the Ku Klux Klan was charged over one of the most notorious set of killings from the civil rights era. Edgar Ray Killen, a part-time baptist preacher, appeared in court in Philadelphia, Mississippi, charged over the killing of three civil rights activists in 1964. Their murder and the subsequent discovery of their bodies under an earthen dam featured in the 1988 film Mississippi Burning.

Officials said it was possible others could be arrested over the killing of the the three young men - James Chaney, a 21-year-old black Mississippian, and two white New Yorkers, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24.

Carolyn Goodman, now 89, has campaigned for justice since her son was killed. Speaking from her New York home, a family friend, Scott Champion, told The Independent: "She is just happy that it has finally come to this. She always thought it would happen and she's thankful that she's around to see it."

Mr Killen, who was known as "the Preacher", was arrested on Thursday after authorities convened a grand jury to investigate the murders. It is understood that the jury, called just one month after a $100,000 reward was offered for information, heard testimony from people with direct knowledge of the case.

The Neshoba County Sheriff, Larry Myers, told reporters: "We went ahead and got [Killen] because he was high-profile and we knew where he was."

This is not the first time that Mr Killen - who has always denied any involvement in the killings - has been charged over the crime. In 1967, the Justice Department tried him and eight others on federal civil rights violations after state authorities refused to prosecute them. Seven of the 18 were convicted and sentenced to prison terms of up to 10 years but Mr Killen was freed.

Seven others from that original trial are still alive.

Over the past 15 years a number of notorious cases from the civil rights era have been reinvestigated and those responsible - now old and often sick - have been convicted. In 2001, Thomas Blanton, another former Klan member, was convicted of participating in the 1963 bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, in which four girls were killed.

Mark Pokock of the Southern Poverty Law Centre, a campaigning legal group, said: "This really is the last of the big cases. The sad reality is that there were probably hundreds of others that were never known about. Lots of people just disappeared in the South during the civil rights era and we will never know what happened to them."

The three civil rights workers were taking part in the so-called Freedom Summer 1964, when hundreds of young, mostly white, university students came to the South to help register black voters. On 21 June 1964, while driving back from Philadelphia, they were arrested by Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price for "speeding". They were briefly held in the county jail and released at 10pm.

While driving then on a remote country road their car was overtaken by a group of men. It stopped their car and killed them.

Mr Killen has refused all requests for interviews and has generally kept a low profile. Last summer a white supremacist announced that he would be at the Mississippi State Fair to shake hands and pose for pictures but the appearance was cancelled.

Documents released by the FBI in 2000 revealed that an informant, James Johnson, told investigators that Mr Killen told him "they had three civil rights workers in Philadelphia and that they needed their asses tore up".

Jerry Killen, the suspect's brother, told the Associated Press that the arrest was "pitiful" and that Mr Killen never mentioned the killings. "He won't talk about it. I don't know if he did it or not."

In 1998 the Clarion-Ledger newspaper published an interview with Sam Bowers, a former Imperial Wizard of the Klan now serving life for the 1966 killing of another rights campaigner. Bowers, who was convicted in 1967, said he had stopped the authorities convicting the killer. "I was quite delighted to be convicted and have the main instigator walk out of the courtroom a free man," he said in an interview supposed to have been released only after his death.