White racist faces third trial for 1963 murder: Beckwith case raises concern over civil rights, says Peter Pringle in New York

AS MUCH as any living American, Byron De La Beckwith is a symbol of Southern racism, a throwback to the grim days before the Civil Rights Act when white supremacists such as he put black people in constant terror of their lives.

Three decades ago Mr Beckwith was charged with killing a black man, but juries in two separate trials could not agree on the evidence and he was set free. This week, aged 73 and still espousing racist views, he appears on the same murder charge in a new trial that raises some troubling questions about whether Mr Beckwith's own civil rights are now being violated.

Although it would seem clear from the 30-year interval in prosecutions for the same crime that Mr Beckwith is being deprived of his right under the Sixth Amendment to a speedy trial, local politics has intervened. No official in the state judicial system of Jackson, Mississippi, where the crime was committed and the trial is being held, wants to stop the prosecution because the black community would be in uproar and the officials would be in danger of losing their elected positions. Half of Jackson's population is black.

The new trial also raises the question of double jeopardy. Mr Beckwith, who still pleads not guilty to the murder, appealed against the decision to reopen the trial on both grounds, but lost because there is new evidence.

In 1963, Mr Beckwith was charged with killing Medgar Evers, a 31-year-old black civil rights worker who was shot dead in front of his home in Jackson. A high-powered rifle found in the bushes near Evers' home was traced to Mr Beckwith and his fingerprints were found on the weapon's telescopic sight.

However, police officers testified that they saw Mr Beckwith in his home town of Greenwood, 100 miles from Jackson, on the night of the murder. All-white, all-male juries failed to reach verdicts in the two trials. The case was formally dropped in 1969.

In 1990, the charges were resurrected by the Mississippi state prosecutor after the local Jackson newspaper, the Clarion-Ledger, discovered there had been jury-tampering in the second trial. A now-defunct state agency that promoted segregation, the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, had screened the jury panel in Mr Beckwith's favour.

The prosecution is believed to have found at least two witnesses who will testify that after the earlier mistrials Mr Beckwith boasted of killing Evers. According to a book entitled Klandestine, about the Evers murder case, an FBI undercover agent in the Ku Klux Klan reported that Mr Beckwith had told a Klan meeting: 'Killing that nigger gave me no more inner discomfort than our wives endure when they give birth to our children.' The FBI agent, Delmar Dennis, has now been called to give evidence.

In the first trial Mr Beckwith, who became a hero in segregationist circles, was supported by white supremacist groups. Today he has court-appointed lawyers who are having trouble locating previous witnesses, some of whom are now dead. Original trial documents have been lost, they say.

Mr Beckwith's ranting against black people has not diminished, however. In a recent interview with the Boston Globe, he claimed he still had the support of 'country club' Mississippi - people who are 'tired of this crap the Jews, niggers and Orientals are stirring up'. He says his enemies are 'every colour but white and every creed but Christian'. Mixing of the races, he says, should be regarded as 'a capital crime, like murder is a capital crime'.

After the original trials, Mr Beckwith ran into trouble elsewhere for his racist activities. In 1973 he was arrested as he drove into New Orleans with a time-bomb in his car. He apparently intended to blow up the home of the local leader of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. He was convicted and served three years in solitary confinement in a Louisiana jail. For some reason the jury at the trial was composed of only five people, and the verdict was later declared unconstitutional and the conviction removed from the record. Mr Beckwith referred to the jury members as 'those five nigger bitches'.

(Photographs omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own