Evers verdict to pave the way

THE conviction after 31 years of Byron De La Beckwith for the murder of one of the best- known martyrs of the civil rights movement, Medgar Evers, could lead to other cases of black people killed in the 1960s by white supremacists being reopened.

The jury of eight blacks and four whites in the Beckwith trial in Jackson, Mississippi, took only six hours to return a unanimous verdict of guilty on Saturday, superseding two previous trials in 1964 when all- white juries deadlocked. Beckwith was immediately sentenced to life in prison.

Using one of Beckwith's racial epithets, Evers' widow, Myrlie, said she hoped the verdict would 'send a message that it is no longer open season on 'jungle bunnies'. Medgar's life was not in vain and perhaps he did more in death than he could have in life. Somehow I think he is still among us.'

The key evidence that convinced the jury came from six witnesses who said they had heard Beckwith boast about killing Evers. One of the witnesses, Mark Reilly, a prison guard befriended by Beckwith when he was jailed for having explosives in his car, said Beckwith had bragged about 'killing that uppity nigger, Medgar Evers' and claimed to have influence in Mississippi that protected him from being punished for the crime.

Evers was killed by a deer- hunting rifle outside his home in Jackson. The rifle, found in nearby bushes, was traced to Beckwith and his finger prints were found on the telescopic sight. Policemen had testified at the earlier trials that they had seen Beckwith in another town, 100 miles from Jackson, on the night of the murder.

The trial was reopened after evidence was found that the earlier juries had been selected with the help of a now defunct Mississippi state agency that was created in the 1950s to marshal support for the maintenance of segregation.

During the third trial the normally voluble Beckwith was mostly silent. As the verdict was announced, there were cries of joy in the halls of the courthouse.

Beckwith has the right of appeal. Although Mississippi has the death penalty, the prosecution could not ask for it because the statute in effect at the time of the murder has since been ruled unconstitutional.

Neil McMillen, of the University of Southern Mississippi, an expert on white supremacist movements of the 1950s and 1960s, said the case could lead to the reopening of others where there had been apparent miscarriages of justice.