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'Mississippi Burning' trial set to start

Jury selection begins Monday in 41-year-old civil rights case

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
Civil Rights
Hate Crimes

PHILADELPHIA, Mississippi (CNN) -- Jury selection begins Monday in a 1964 civil rights case that still haunts this rural town of 7,300 residents.

The case dates back to the "Freedom Summer," when young people from around the country came to the South to register black voters.

Among them were three men -- Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, both white, and James Chaney, black.

Schwerner, 24, and Goodman, 20, were volunteers from New York sent to Mississippi. Chaney, 21, was a resident of Meridian, Mississippi, who participated in the voter drive.

On June 21, the men were heading down the Mississippi back roads to investigate a torched church that was to have been home to a school.

The FBI says Ku Klux Klan members beat several church members then set the church afire, leaving it a charred ruin.

But before the three men reached the church, police arrested the men for speeding and tossed them into the Neshoba County Jail.

Prosecutors say that while the three were sitting in jail, a gang of about 20 Klan members put a plan in motion to kill them. Authorities accused part-time Baptist preacher Edgar Ray Killen of leading the effort.

Hours later, police released the civil rights workers, who drove away in their station wagon.

Right behind them were two carloads of Klan members, authorities say.

After a chase, the mob forced them off the road, grabbed them from their car and shot them dead at close range, authorities say.

The men then used a bulldozer to bury the bodies in an earthen dam.

After a 44-day search, FBI agents dug the bodies from under 15 feet of dirt.

The state never charged anyone with murder, and federal statutes against murder did not exist at the time.

Instead, the federal government tried 18 men, including Killen, on charges of conspiring to violate the civil rights of the victims.

Seven were convicted and served prison sentences of no more than six years. Eight were acquitted.

During the 1967 trial, former Ku Klux Klansman James Jordan testified that Killen told the men involved that deputies "had three of the civil rights workers locked up, and we had to hurry and get there and we were to pick them up and tear their butts up."

Killen walked free after the all-white jury deadlocked 11-1 in favor of conviction. The lone holdout said at the time that she could never convict a preacher. The jury also deadlocked on two other cases.

Killen -- now 80 years old and frail -- maintains he is innocent.

In March, Killen broke both legs in a tree-cutting accident. The judge has rejected a request that the trial be delayed, but has made provisions for the defendant to be made comfortable during the trial, which is expected to last about two weeks.

Civil rights activist Lawrence Guyot recently told CNN that the arrest of Killen made him "proud to be a Mississippian."

Guyot said he knew Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner and "almost got in the car with them" on that fateful night in June 1964. (Full story)

"It is never too late to do what is right," he said. "Justice delayed should not be justice denied."

The killings helped spur national support for the civil rights movement.

The investigation inspired the 1988 movie "Mississippi Burning," directed by Alan Parker, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including best picture.

Other cases reopened

The Killen case is the latest of several infamous killings from the civil rights era in the South to be reopened since the early 1990s.

In 1994, a Mississippi jury in Hinds County convicted self-proclaimed white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith for the 1963 ambush killing of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi.

Beckwith died in prison in 2001 while serving a life term. He had been tried twice for the crime in 1964, but in both cases an all-white jury deadlocked.

In 1998, another Mississippi jury convicted former Klan imperial wizard Sam Bowers of the 1966 firebomb-killing of an NAACP leader.

In 2002, an Alabama jury convicted former Klansman Bobby Frank Cherry of first-degree murder in the 1963 firebombing of a Birmingham church that killed four black schoolgirls.

Cherry was sentenced to a life term and died in prison. His co-defendant in the firebombing, Thomas Blanton Jr., was convicted a year earlier and sentenced to life in prison.

Earlier this month in Chicago, Illinois, the FBI exhumed the body of Emmett Till, a black 14-year-old who was kidnapped and mutilated in Mississippi in August 1955.

Two men were tried and acquitted of Till's murder by an all-white jury but later confessed to the crime, which became a rallying point for the early civil rights movement.

The two men are now dead, but the government said it has reason to believe others were involved and hoped evidence might be recovered from an autopsy of Till's body, which was not performed at the time of his killing.

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