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'Mississippi Burning' trial begins

Jury selection under way in 1964 murder case

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
Civil Rights
Hate Crimes

PHILADELPHIA, Mississippi (CNN) -- Forty-one years after three civil rights workers were killed in rural Mississippi, jury selection began Monday in the murder trial of a Baptist preacher accused of instigating the crime.

Edgar Ray Killen walked free in 1967 after an all-white jury deadlocked, voting 11-1 in favor of his conviction for his role in the deaths of three young men who had come to Mississippi to register black voters.

The lone holdout said she could never convict a preacher.

Monday, prosecutors summoned about 400 people to the courthouse in Philadelphia, Mississippi, to undergo questions as potential jurors in the case against 80-year-old Killen.

"This is a sad day for the state of Mississippi, after 40 years of moving forward, and going back and opening up an old crime like this," Killen's attorney, James McIntyre, said Monday. "The state of Mississippi needs to be going forward, not backwards."

The current murder charges followed an investigation -- prompted by the U.S. Attorney's office in Mississippi -- that ended last year, Neshoba County District Attorney Marc Duncan said Monday.

Duncan said prosecutors "presented all the evidence that we had in the case against anybody and everybody," to a grand jury, which had the option of indicting others in the case.

"After their deliberations, they decided to indict Mr. Killen and only Mr. Killen," he said. "That was a grand jury decision."

About the accusation

The case involves the 1964 deaths of two white New Yorkers, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney a black man from Meridian, Mississippi.

Schwerner, 24, Goodman, 20, and Chaney, 21, were participating in "Freedom Summer," when young people from around the country came to the South to register black voters.

On June 21, the men were driving on 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. Hours later, police released the civil rights workers, who drove away in their station wagon.

Two carloads of Klan members followed them, authorities said.

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."

Authorities said that after a chase, the mob forced the civil rights workers off the road, grabbed them from their car and shot them dead at close range.

The men 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. Killen went free.

A frail Killen maintains his innocence.

Defendant accommodations

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.

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