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Ex-Klansmen to testify at 'Mississippi Burning' trial

Man accused in killings of three civil rights workers in 1964

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
Justice and Rights

PHILADELPHIA, Mississippi (CNN) -- Opening statements began Wednesday in the trial of a man accused of masterminding the abduction and murders of three young civil rights workers nearly 41 years ago.

Edgar Ray Killen, 80, is on trial in Neshoba County Circuit Court for the 1964 killings of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, who were registering voters in Mississippi during the "Freedom Summer" campaign.

The slayings helped galvanize the civil rights movement in the 1960s and inspired the 1988 movie "Mississippi Burning."

State Attorney General James Hood gave the opening statement for the prosecution, telling jurors that Killen, a part-time Baptist preacher, was the person who instigated and planned the Ku Klux Klan attack on the three men.

Hood said former Klan members were cooperating with prosecutors and will testify about Killen's involvement.

Killen watched and took notes from a wheelchair. He broke both legs in a March tree-cutting accident, but the judge denied a defense request to delay the trial. On Monday, Killen was escorted to court by a KKK "imperial wizard."

Hood tried to personalize the victims for jurors, talking about their backgrounds and pointing out family members in the audience, including Schwerner's widow, Rita Bender, and Chaney's brother, Ben.

In his opening statement, defense attorney Mitch Moran argued that the issue was who committed the murders.

He said that while Killen might have known about the murders, he did not plan them or carry them out.

He said the issue should not be clouded by the jury's feelings toward the Klan or membership in it.

Schwerner, 24, and Goodman, 20, were white New Yorkers who traveled to the South with hundreds of activists for Freedom Summer in 1964. During this time, they met Chaney, 21, a black Mississippian.

On June 21, police arrested the men for speeding on their way to investigate a torched church and tossed them into the Neshoba County Jail.

Prosecutors say that while the trio was in jail, a gang of about 20 Klan members led by Killen plotted to kill them.

Police released the men hours later and the drove away in their station wagon. Behind them were two carloads of Klan members, authorities say.

After a chase, the mob forced them off the road, grabbed them from their car, shot them dead at close range, and used a bulldozer to bury their bodies in an earthen dam. FBI agents dug the bodies from 15 feet of dirt 44 days later.

In 1967, Killen was one of several people the federal government tried on charges of conspiring to violate the civil rights of the victims.

At the time, no federal statute against murder existed, and the state never charged anyone with the crimes.

Seven were convicted and served prison sentences of no more than six years. Seven were acquitted.

Killen walked free after the all-white jury deadlocked 11-1 in favor of conviction. The lone holdout said she could never convict a preacher.

The case was reopened last year after the U.S. attorney's office in Jackson contacted authorities in Neshoba County and told them someone had come forward with information, District Attorney Marc Duncan said. A grand jury indicted Killen in January.

Seventeen jurors and alternates were seated Wednesday, including nine white females, four white males, two black females and two black males. The judge gave no breakdown of which of them are jurors and which are alternates.

The jurors will be sequestered for the trial. They were escorted by bailiffs to their homes to pick up their belongings.

The judge will hold a hearing Thursday on a defense motion to exclude transcripts from Killen's 1967 trial. Prosecution testimony is expected to begin afterward.

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