Jury Evenly Split in Mississippi Murder Case

Jury Evenly Split in Mississippi Murder Case (WaPo, A3)

Jurors formed a semicircle around the judge overseeing the trial in the infamous 1964 killings of three civil rights workers and announced Monday that they are deadlocked 6 to 6, casting a sense of despair over a courtroom packed mostly with prosecution supporters.

A pair of women in the audience who probably would not have sat together in public in this small town at the time of the killings — one white, one black — shook their heads. Tears welled in the white woman’s eyes and she began to sob; the black woman, Dolores Barnes, gritted her teeth.

“Same as it is all over Mississippi,” Barnes said moments later, her eyes flashing in anger. “They don’t have repentant hearts.”

After two hours of deliberations on the day before the 41st anniversary of the slayings, the jurors’ pronouncement — they are to resume deliberating Tuesday — is only an early indication of their thinking about the murder and manslaughter charges against Edgar Ray Killen, an 80-year-old former Ku Klux Klan leader. Still, the jury’s even split had many here considering the possibility that the case could end in an acquittal or a mistrial. Southern prosecutors have had remarkable success over the past 15 years resurrecting civil-rights-era cases, and a failure in this case — which was the subject of the movie “Mississippi Burning” — could be a serious blow to efforts to reopen other cases from the 1960s.

All the cases have their peculiarities, but the prosecution’s jury consultant, Andrew Sheldon — who has worked on several of the most high-profile cases in the past decade — noticed one glaring difference about the Killen case. Some prospective jurors in almost all the cases have said during jury selection that the defendant was too old or the cases were too old but did not appear to actually mean it. In the Killen case, Sheldon said, “it seems like people really felt that.”

One of the many problems with digging up decades-old cases for re-prosecution in order to salve old wounds is that only one outcome is “acceptable.” Our criminal justice system is supposed to be geared to put the burden on the prosecution. In these cases, though, the guilt of the man on trial is assumed and the jury is expected to play their role in the grand show by convicting him. If they do, all is as expected. If they don’t, then it just goes to show that they’re a bunch of racists and society has not changed.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Race and Politics, , , ,
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. Just Me says:

    I dont that is how it seems to be in any case involving race.

    Just look at the Rodney King case-when the jurors forgot to play their role and convict the officers.

  2. denise says:

    Gees Louise!

    What made this jury announce their numerical tally? And why did the judge let them get that out?

    That’s almost as ridiculous as the jury thinking they’re deadlocked after deliberating only 2 hours.

    I know judges around here who would actually yell at a jury for such behavior. I’m not sure that’s a great idea, but I can understand the temptation.

  3. Anderson says:

    Down here in Mississippi, I’m of mixed feelings about the trial, but I’m starting to think it’s a bad idea, precisely because of the “show trial” quality that the post describes. (I have only the haziest grasp of criminal law and of why Killen can even be put on trial again.)

    It’s a shame that Killen wasn’t convicted in the 1st place, on the facts as we have them, but it’s a sad situation. The jury must feel pressured to convict lest the rest of the country go “see, still protecting those KKK’ers!” And knowing my fellow good old boys, I suspect that feeling that pressure will be enough for one or two to acquit.

  4. McGehee says:

    (I have only the haziest grasp of criminal law and of why Killen can even be put on trial again.)

    I’m not up on the facts of this case and am not a lawyer, but as a general rule a defendant can be brought to trial again for the same offense in the event of new evidence without a double jeopardy issue.

  5. James Joyner says:

    Kevin: Not if he was acquitted the first time, he can’t.

  6. Harry says:

    As far as why he could be brought up on the charges now, there is no statute of limitations on murder, at least in Mississippi. You may consider this a show trial. I can tell you that many people here, white and black, consider this not a show trial but justice delayed. Being able to avoid prosecution via political or societal reasons should not lessen either guilt or punishment.

  7. denise says:

    Okay, a few things:

    1) The jury has now come back with a manslaughter conviction.

    2) No double jeopardy issue because there had never been a state murder trial. There had been a federal conspiracy trial, but the elements are different and dual sovereignty, so that’s why there’s no double jeopardy issue.

    3) I just heard an NPR report that indicated the jury never really declared themselves deadlocked. The judge brought them into court at the end of the day yesterday and asked how they were doing (which is common), at which point the jury (probably the foreman) announced that they were 6-6, which shouldn’t have been said, but it’s not the same at all as announcing a deadlock. The reporter also said at this point it cannot be known how the 6-6 vote was split, but she thinks it was 6 for murder, 6 for manslaughter. (I think it could have been 6 for murder, 6 for acquittal, and they agreed on manslaughter as a compromise.)

  8. Anderson says:

    Harry, I think it’s a “show trial” in that there’s an expected outcome that the jury, and Mississippi, will be condemned for failing to deliver, unless they vote guilty on all counts.

    (Manslaughter, as it turns out, and sure enough, the news has people saying that this lesser verdict shows how backwards we are.)

    I see the prosecution’s closing asked the jury to “send a message,” which is error, tho not necessarily reversible on its own:

    The jurors are representatives of the community in one sense, but they are not to vote in a representative capacity. Each juror is to apply the law to the evidence and vote accordingly. The issue which each juror must resolve is not whether or not he or she wishes to “send a message” but whether or not he or she believes that the evidence showed the defendant to be guilty of the crime charged. The jury is an arm of the State but it is not an arm of the prosecution. The State includes both the prosecution and the accused. The function of the jury is to weigh the evidence and determine the facts. When the prosecution wishes to send a message they should employ Western Union. Mississippi jurors are not messenger boys.

    Williams v. Mississippi, 522 So. 2d 201.

  9. Anderson says:

    Thanks, Denise, on the difference between the federal and state trials.