Edgar Ray Killen, klansman convicted in civil rights workers slaying, dies in prison

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Edgar Ray Killen during his 2005 trial

 

Edgar Ray “Preacher” Killen, the last person convicted of taking part in the 1964 murders of three civil rights activists in Neshoba County, died in prison Thursday night, officials announced Friday. He was 92.

Associated Press / FBI

On June 29, 1964, the FBI began distributing these pictures of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, 24, of New York, James Chaney, 21, from Mississippi, and Andrew Goodman, 20, of New York, who disappeared near Philadelphia, Miss., June 21, 1964.

In June 2005, at the age of 80, Killen was sentenced to 60 years in prison on three manslaughter convictions in the slayings of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in a state trial, which drew national attention because of the case’s notoriety and the length of time it took to bring someone to justice.

The killings also were the basis for the 1988 movie, “Mississippi Burning,” which is what the FBI dubbed the case.

An autopsy and funeral services for Killen are pending.

Attorney General Jim Hood and District Attorney Mark Duncan prosecuted him in 2005 before Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon.

In June 2016, Hood officially closed the wider investigation in the case, saying possible defendants in the civil-rights killings either were dead or without credible witnesses to testify against them.

Mississippi Department of Corrections

Edgar Ray Killen

A Neshoba County jury convicted Killen of three counts of manslaughter when it deadlocked on murder charges.

Coincidentally, his conviction in the deaths of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner came on June 21, 2005 — exactly 41 years after their slayings at the hands of Ku Klux Klan members in the East Central Mississippi county.

The three civil rights activists were in Mississippi to help organize voter-registration drives for African Americans. Chaney was from Meridian and Goodman and Schwerner were from New York. Their deaths brought national attention to the civil rights movement and help speed passage of the Voting Rights Act.

“[Killen’s] life spanned a period in this country where members of the Ku Klux Klan like him were able to believe they had a right to take other people’s lives, and that’s a form of terrorism,” Goodman’s brother, David, told the Associated Press on Friday. “Many took black lives without impunity.”

Born Jan. 17, 1925, Killen was the son of Lonnie Ray Killen and Etta Killen. He was a sawmill operator and part-time minister.

In the Ku Klux Klan, Killen reached the position of “kleagle” or recruiter and organizer for local chapters in Neshoba and nearby Lauderdale counties.

His 2005 trial was not the first time law enforcement authorities looked at Killen’s involvement in the 1964 murders. Although state prosecutors made little effort to find the killers, in 1965, Killen was one of 18 men arrested and prosecuted by Solicitor General Thurgood Marshall on federal charges that they conspired to violate the victims’ civil rights.

The 1966 trial in Meridian by an all-white jury convicted seven conspirators, but for Killen, it ended with a hung jury with jurors deadlocked 11-1 in favor of conviction. The lone holdout said she could not convict a preacher. He was released when the prosecution decided not to try again.

More than 20 years later, new evidence from new witnesses surfaced regarding the three murders and Killen was accused of state charges on Jan. 6, 2005. His jury of nine whites and three blacks rejected murder charges but found him guilty of recruiting the mob that carried out the killings.

The Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed his conviction 8-0, with one judge not participating, in 2007.