Ex-KKK Edgar Ray Killen Convicted in 1964 Killings

Edgar Ray Killen was convicted today for his part in the crimes portrayed in the movie “Mississippi Burning.”

Ex-KKK Member Convicted in 1964 Killings (AP)

An 80-year-old former Ku Klux Klansman was convicted of manslaughter Tuesday in the slayings of three civil rights workers exactly 41 years ago in a notorious case that inspired the movie “Mississippi Burning.” The jury of nine whites and three blacks reached the verdict on their second day of deliberations, rejecting murder charges against Edgar Ray Killen but also turning aside defense claims that he wasn’t involved at all. Killen showed no emotion as the verdict was read. He was comforted by his wife as he sat in his wheelchair, wearing an oxygen tube. Heavily armed police formed a barrier outside a side door to the courthouse and jurors were loaded into two waiting vans and driven away.

Civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were ambushed on June 21, 1964. Their bodies were found 44 days later buried in an earthen dam. They had been beaten and shot.

Cheers could be heard outside the two-story, red brick courthouse after the verdict was announced. Passers-by patted Chaney’s brother, Ben, on the back and one woman slowed her vehicle and yelled, “Hey, Mr. Chaney, all right!” Later, Ben Chaney thanked the prosecutors but said that for the community, “I really feel that there is more to be done.” He said there were still no black businesses downtown.

Schwerner’s widow, Rita Schwerner Bender, praised the verdict, calling it “a day of great importance to all of us.” But she said others also should be held responsible for the slayings. “Preacher Killen didn’t act in a vacuum,” Bender said. “The state of Mississippi was complicit in these crimes and all the crimes that occurred, and that has to be opened up.” Prosecutors had asked the jury to send a message to the rest of the world that Mississippi has changed and is committed to bringing to justice those who killed to preserve segregation in the 1960s. They said the evidence was clear that Killen organized the attack on the three victims.

It’s rather amazing that six jurors changed their mind over the course of hours.

At any rate, I would argue that “send[ing] a message to the rest of the world that Mississippi has changed and is committed to bringing to justice those who killed to preserve segregation in the 1960s” is beyond the scope of a jury’s charge. They are supposed to determine whether the prosecution proved, beyond reasonable doubt, whether Killen committed the murders for which he was charged. While I haven’t followed the evidence closely, I’m reasonably sure that he did. But the circus atmosphere around these type of trials is not the proper tone for criminal proceedings.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Todd says:

    Yes it was 6 to 6 but in what combination? 6 for murder and 6 for manslaughter or 6 for murder and 6 for not guilty or…you cant assume that six jurors were for not-guilty. My guess is that it was 6 for murder and 6 for manslaughter and the 6 jurors for murder were persuaded to change their votes to manslaughter.

  2. Harry says:

    I don’t think it ever really got to a circus atmosphere, although that may be more due to the speed of the trial than anything else.

  3. Anderson says:

    As I’ve noted, JJ is quite right about the law concerning the “send a message” charge to the jury. However, our appellate courts have managed to chop their logic pretty finely when they want to affirm a conviction. Very fact/result-intensive.

  4. Margaret Roberts says:

    I think the sentancing on Edgar Ray Killen was unfair, unjust and just wrong. The judge gave not only him but his cancer-stricken wife a death sentance for a crime that did not legally call for one. If a man was convected today of 3 counts of manslaughter they would not be given 3 consecutive 20 yr sentances. Killen is an eighty year old sick man and now our tax dollars will have to pay for his care instead of Killen paying for it.