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)

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