Reputed Klansman pleads innocent of 1964 murders
Jan. 7, 2005 | PHILADELPHIA, Miss. -- Reputed Ku Klux Klan member Edgar Ray Killen responded loudly with "not guilty" three times Friday as he was arraigned on murder charges in the slayings of three civil rights workers more than 40 years ago. The prosecutor said he was the only person indicted in the case.
Killen, handcuffed and dressed in a loosely fitting orange jail jumpsuit, lowered his voice when asked if he could afford an attorney. He was then led off to the Neshoba County Jail pending another hearing Wednesday. He was ordered held without bond until then.
Killen, 79, was arrested Thursday in the 1964 shooting deaths James Chaney, a 21-year-old black Mississippian, and two white New Yorkers, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24. It was the first time the state has sought criminal charges in the case that outraged a nation.
District Attorney Mark Duncan said prosecutors did not intend to publicly discuss what evidence they had developed or what role authorities believe Killen had in the killings.
While prosecutors had secured the indictment during a one-day grand jury presentation, Duncan said, "it hadn't been fast for us. We've been investigating the case for several years now. It just finally got to the point where we felt like we had done all that we can do."
"It was time to present whatever we had to the grand jury and let them make a decision on the case," he said.
"There will be no other indictments in this case," Duncan said.
At the hearing, Killen told Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon he couldn't afford a lawyer but did own some land. Gordon said he would decide later whether he would appoint an attorney.
Soon after Killen's arraignment, the courthouse was cleared by authorities who said they had received a bomb threat. Nothing suspicious was found, they said later.
Rep. John Lewis, the black Georgia congressman who knew the three slain men, hailed the arrest Friday, telling NBC's "Today" that it was "a tremendous step down a very long road."
In 1967, the Justice Department tried Killen and 18 other men -- many of them also Klan members -- on federal civil rights violations. Seven were convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to 10 years. Killen was freed after his trial ended in a hung jury.
From her home in New York, Goodman's mother, Carolyn, said she "knew that in the end the right thing was going to happen." She added: "I'm not looking for revenge. I'm looking for justice."
Lewis, elected to Congress from Georgia in 1986, was chairman of a leading civil right group, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, from 1963 to 1966. "It is never, ever too late to bring about justice and send the strongest possible message that bigotry and hate will not be tolerated in our society," he said Friday.
Killen's arrest followed a grand jury session Thursday that apparently included testimony from individuals believed to have knowledge of the slayings.
"After 40 years to come back and do something like this is ridiculous ... like a nightmare," said Billy Wayne Posey said while waiting to testify before the grand jury. One of the men convicted in federal court, Posey refused to say what he expected to be asked.
Calls to Killen's home late Thursday were answered by a recording.
Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, were killed on a lonely dirt road as they drove to a church to investigate a fire. The trio allegedly was stopped by Klansmen, beaten and shot to death.
They were participating in Freedom Summer 1964, when hundreds of young, mostly white, college students came to the South to register blacks to vote and start educational programs.
Several weeks later, their bodies were found buried in a dam a few miles from the church. The case was dramatized in the 1988 movie "Mississippi Burning."
Killen has always denied a role in the slayings.
Jerry G. Killen, who identified himself as the suspect's brother, said he wasn't aware of the arrest but said he thought it was "pitiful." He said his brother never mentioned the 1964 slayings: "He won't talk about it. I don't know if he did it or not."
Mississippi has had some success reopening old civil rights murder cases, including a 1994 conviction of Byron de la Beckwith for the 1963 assassination of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers.
But until recently there has been little progress in building murder cases against anyone involved in the slayings -- though the case has remained very much in the public eye.
Attorney General Jim Hood reopened an investigation of the slayings and just last month, an anonymous donor posted a $100,000 reward for information leading to murder charges.
Not everyone was happy with the grand jury's efforts.
"It appears to be a sad day for the state of Mississippi," said attorney James D. McIntyre, who said he was on the defense team during the 1967 trial. "The investigation that has being brought forth -- the prosecutors, news media -- I just hate to see it happen."
Ben Chaney, the younger brother of James Chaney, called the latest investigation a sham that may target one or two unrepentant Klansmen -- but spare the wealthy and influential whites he claims had a hand in the slayings.