Skip to main content /transcript


Reopening Decades-Old Civil Rights Cases

Aired May 28, 2001 - 12:30   ET


ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: One of the most notorious crimes of the civil rights era is being revived on the legal battlefield. The killing of three civil rights workers in rural Mississippi during the heat of America's civil rights movement is again making headlines.


MICHAEL MOORE, MISSISSIPPI ATTORNEY GENERAL: We are banking on the fact that there are those out there who are involved or who were involved in this case, who, at this point in their life, would like to come clean about it.


COSSACK: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: Why now, after all these years, are these cases being reopened?

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF, with Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren.

COSSACK: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF.

The case of a 1964 triple-murder of young civil rights workers has resurfaced. Depicted in the 1988 movie "Mississippi Burning," national attention has been brought to this unresolved mystery. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were killed in Neshoba County, Mississippi in the middle of nation's struggle for change. Now, 37 years later, the case is being rekindled.

Brian Cabell reports.


BRIAN CABELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Highway 19, south of Philadelphia, Mississippi, was one of the last sights they saw the night of June 21, 1964. Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner were abducted from their car by a group of segregationists bent on violence.

The civil rights workers were driven down a remote country road and shot to death, right here. Two days later, their burned out car was recovered. Six weeks later, their bodies, buried in an earthen dam were found. Seven of the perpetrators were convicted on federal civil rights violations three years later, but state murder charges have never been filed.

MOORE: We know who did it. We know what all the facts are. It's not a question of that. It's a question of being able to put live witnesses on the witness stand to testify about these events.

CABELL: One of those live witnesses and a suspect was to be former Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, but he died two weeks ago at the age of 63. Price allegedly helped arrange the murders.

JERRY MITCHELL, REPORTER, CLARION LEDGER: He had made a statement, given a statement to authorities, in which he admitted his involvement in the murder, which of course, he had never done before.

CABELL: Price's death was a crushing blow to Mississippi prosecutors, who reopened the case a year and a half ago. They've pored over 40,000 pages of documents and interviewed hundreds of possible witnesses. But two major witnesses and three likely defendants have now died in just the last four months.

KEN TURNER, NESHOBA COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY: For the most part, of the ones that remain alive, they've pretty much just expressed -- that we've been able to interview -- that, you know, they don't know anything about it.

CABELL: It's frustrating for prosecutors, because they feel time slipping away. They'd especially like to indict Edgar Killen, a preacher who was one of the alleged ringleaders. He's denied his involvement.

Killen, now in his 70's, still lives right down the road from where the murders occurred. He didn't respond to CNN's attempts to talk with him.

For 36 years now, the town of Philadelphia has lived with this nightmarish legacy.

JOHN PRINCE, EDITOR, NESHOBA DEMOCRAT: There is a sense, for some of us, of corporate guilt of this hanging over our heads.

CABELL: For the families of the victims there's been grief, anger and impatience.

BEN CHANEY, JAMES CHANEY'S BROTHER: It's been frustrating for my entire family over these years. There's no closure. There's no justice.

CABELL: Rita Bender, who was Michael Schwerner's widow, also longs for justice, but not for personal reasons.

RITA SCHWERNER BENDER, MICHAEL SCHWERNER'S WIDOW: It's really about understanding how these things have come to happen and learning from it.

CABELL: Since the turbulent days of the civil rights era, Mississippi has tried to right the wrongs of its past. Segregationist murderers have been sent to prison. But the infamous triple murder of three idealistic young men remains unresolved, an open wound that may never be cleansed.

(on camera): Prosecutors say if indictments are finally handed down in this case it will almost certainly happen by the end of this year, but, they say, they need help from witnesses, and they need for their witnesses and defendants to stay alive. Brian Cabell, CNN, Philadelphia, Mississippi.


COSSACK: And joining us today from Seattle, Washington is attorney Rita Schwerner Bender, the widow of Michael Schwerner -- from Montgomery, Alabama, Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who is also the attorney for Myrlie Evers, the widow of slain civil rights worker Medgar Evers.

And from Jackson, Mississippi, we're joined by Merrida Coxwell, former attorney for Byron de la Beckwith, who was convicted in 1994 of murdering Medgar Evers -- and from Birmingham, Alabama: John Robbins, attorney for Thomas Blanton Jr., who was recently convicted of an Alabama church bombing.

Morris, I want to start right with you. We have seen recently more and more of these old cases being reopened. Why is this case being reopened now?

MORRIS DEES, SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER: I think the de la Beckwith case over in Mississippi was the thing that started it all in recent times. And I believe that prosecutors are different, juries are different. And there is still a demand, as some of the victims' families express, for some type of justice in these cases.

COSSACK: Rita, you were in Mississippi at the time of this event, of your husband's death. Tell us what it was like then in Mississippi.

SCHWERNER BENDER: Mississippi was a place -- as I believe most of the South was -- in which an atmosphere of terror was created by not just by the Klan -- although certainly by them -- but by people in positions of power, by people in government, by people in the business community, by doctors, by lawyers, by church people, in which it was made clear that violence was acceptable in order to continue the Jim Crow laws that existed.

COSSACK: Rita, do you think that that attitude has evaporated today? And is that why we see these old cases being reopened again in the South?

SCHWERNER BENDER: Well, first of all, I should point out this isn't a matter of reopening a case. The state of Mississippi never brought any kind of charges in this case. The state of Mississippi has never acknowledged its complicity in the conduct which led to the bombings, the beatings and the murders throughout the state of Mississippi. COSSACK: Rita, when you say state of Mississippi has yet to acknowledge its complicity, tell me exactly what you mean by that in terms of complicity.

SCHWERNER BENDER: Well, you had a series of governors who were encouraging resistance by any means. After these three men disappeared, Governor Paul Johnson, the governor of the state, joked and said they had undoubtedly gone to Cuba.

They created an atmosphere -- the state legislature in Mississippi created a sovereignty commission, which was an arm of the state government, which was established precisely to preserve segregation and which conducted spying, which was engaged in causing people to lose their jobs, was sharing information about law-abiding citizens with members of law enforcement, who were also known to be members of the Klan.

COSSACK: Morris, things have changed in the South. And in your opinion -- you have been a chronicler of these events for many, many years -- is the rush now -- or supposedly -- maybe not the rush is the right word after all these years -- but at least the notion that Mississippi will investigate and wants to investigate, is that a reflection of a new thought, of a new way of thinking in the South?

DEES: Well, I think you have to look back in 1977 when the attorney general of Alabama prosecuted and convicted the first bomber in the 16th Street Baptist Church. Back when the killers of a family over there in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, the jury back in 1963 convicted several people for killing Vernon Dahmer.

But Rita is right. There was a whole reign of terror throughout the South. Ross Barnett, Governor Wallace and others caused that to happen from the highest offices in our states. Things have changed. I think it is very important today that we don't lose sight of what the civil rights movement was about. And that was about fairness, equality and justice.

And in opening these old cases -- and I certainly was -- played a major role in reopening the case against Byron de la Beckwith -- we've got to be sure that we follow the rule of law. Just because we might believe somebody committed one of these crimes, those defendants are entitled to the same rules that were used to try other people of other races in this history of this country.

And we -- just because we have juries that might convict on very slim evidence, I think that is a very dangerous thing for us to be doing today. I'm in favor opening these cases, but I think we should be sure that we put on evidence and that we don't do, in effect, to these people the same thing that we did to black people back in the days of the civil rights movement.

COSSACK: All right, let me take a break.

How can a murder that happened more than 30 years ago be brought into a courtroom today? And what happens when a key witness in a case dies? Don't go away.


Mississippi prosecutors have successfully revisited other civil rights cases. Last June, Ernest Avants was indicted in the 1966 murder of Ben Chester White. Authorities believe the killing may have been a plot to draw Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. to Mississippi so he could be assassinated.



COSSACK: It was called the "Freedom Summer." And the year was 1964. Three civil rights workers were driving in Philadelphia, Mississippi when they were arrested for speeding and taken to jail. They were released, but mysteriously disappeared; 44 days later, their bodies were found.

Although a sheriffs deputy and six Ku Klux Klan members were convicted of federal charges for violating these workers' civil rights, the state of Mississippi has never charged anyone for these murders.

I want to go to you now, Merrida. You have represented Byron de la Beckwith. What is it like to have to go back now and represent someone who is charged with crimes that happened 25, 30 years ago? The whole political climate of the territory has changed. Witnesses obviously have been lost. Memories have faded. Is it possible to get a fair trial?

MERRIDA COXWELL, ATTY. FOR BYRON DE LA BECKWITH: Well, I was 8 years old when this happened, so I didn't worry much about the political climate.

As far as trying to reconstruct a defense for Mr. Beckwith, I think it was probably more difficult for us than it was for the prosecution to put back -- put together their case, in there were witnesses that were dead. In reviewing old FBI reports, we saw evidence that certainly pointed towards involvement of others, maybe not even Mr. Beckwith, from the standpoint of his defense. And we were not able to find any of those witnesses. The judge -- trial judge did not allow us to use any of the documents. We weren't able to get at them in any way.

I mean, it was a very, very frustrating defense.

COSSACK: I guess what I'm suggesting is what Morris Dees has pointed out for us earlier, in that times have changed and it has become, in some ways, as politically correct now to go back and try to right these wrongs, these horrible wrongs, as wrong as it was when they -- as bad as the wrongs were when they actually happened. And that, I'm saying to you: Is it possible to get a fair trial, as these people are entitled to? COXWELL: Well, I don't disagree with Mr. Dees on that. I have done death penalty work for years. And Mr. Dees, Stephen Bright and others have been heroes of mine for years. And I stayed on the phone to them when I was young.

I was very frustrated with the Beckwith case. Though all of the appellate courts disagreed with me, I felt like there were some speedy-trial violations in that case. And I didn't feel like we were able to provide him the best defense because of the lapse of time. Now, the appellate courts disagreed and they struck down that argument. But I felt like, as far as preparing his defense, we weren't able to do it.

COSSACK: John, you represented Tom Blanton in the Alabama church bombing. The difficulties that you have had, you have described as, in a sense, of a lack of evidence, in some ways against your client or for your client. And, in a sense, I get the feeling that perhaps you just felt the political climate was such that it was impossible to get a fair trial.

JOHN ROBBINS, ATTY. FOR THOMAS BLANTON: Well, we made that argument at the start -- as soon as I got into the case -- that we could not get a fair trial in the Birmingham area. That is one of the issues that will be addressed on appeal.

But going back to what Morris Dees said is -- there is not a statute of limitation on murder, whether it takes one year, 10 years, 20 years or how long if the evidence is there. The danger I see in these cases is turning them into political prosecutions. And once you obtain an indictment, the defendant is almost -- is put into position: Well, you have to prove to the community that you are not guilty of this. And if you don't do that, you are going to be convicted.

And that is an extremely difficult position to be put in once an indictment is returned. And I recognize the difficulties in the prosecution, is -- their witnesses die, memories fade. But once they get that indictment, the difficulties then shift to the defendant, because the defendant has to go out and look for witnesses. You know, you have got an indictment already. Now the defendant has got go to look for a defense and try to put his defense together. Witnesses disappear. Witnesses die. Memories fade, just like in the de la Beckwith case.

There were seven or eight witnesses that were on the scene of the church bombing that were interviewed by the FBI within a day or two of the church bombing that had critical evidence in this case -- could not find one of those witnesses.

COSSACK: Morris, I guess what both of our guests have suggested -- and to some degree, you have, too -- there is this conflict I suppose, between wanting to right these wrongs, and yet the climate has changed so dramatically in these years, that it has become almost politically correct thing to do to convict these people, based on, perhaps, their past associations. And a concern arises now about whether or not they can ever get a fair trial. DEES: Well, Merrida and John are both good lawyers. And -- excuse me -- and I applaud them putting on a defense for their clients as good as they could, because neither one of them share the political beliefs of their clients, the racist beliefs of either one of them.

I think you have to look at each case separately. You've got, over in Mississippi, it is clear there is no mystery about who committed those crimes. Back in 1967, a jury voted 10-2 to convict Reverend Killen. It is pretty clear from the evidence they put on that he was a guilty man. One of the women said she wouldn't vote to convict a preacher.

Now, how can you convict Killen today -- and possibly Sam Bowers, who is in prison for the murder of Vernon Dahmer -- if the only way they could convict him in Mississippi would be to use the testimony from the federal criminal trial, which is devastating against those two witnesses?

The two dead witnesses that can't be used to testify testified then. And it is really a matter of discretion as to whether a trial judge would allow the transcript of that testimony to be read today. If he does, I suspect that they will get a conviction. There are two alive witnesses. And both of them will give damaging testimony against Bowers and Killen.

Bowers was head of the Klan at the time and allegedly told Killen to carry out this execution. Now, the due process laws allow prior trial testimonies. And Mississippi has a very broad law that allows you to go into a prior trial if the motive to elicit the same testimony was the same. Then it was a civil rights violation. Now it is murder.

Now, that is going to be a judgment call of the court of Mississippi.

COSSACK: Yes, that's going to be the big legal question, of whether or not they actually are in tune with one motive or the other.

Let's take a break.

Can justice be served three decades after the fact?

Stay with us.


Q: In the movie "Mississippi Burning," what actor plays a Southern FBI agent sent to Mississippi to investigate the disappearance of three civil rights workers?

A: Gene Hackman.


(COMMERCIAL BREAK) COSSACK: In 1994, Byron de la Beckwith was charged with the 1963 assassination of NAACP leader Medgar Evers. Last month in an Alabama courtroom, Thomas Blanton Jr. was convicted for the murder of four black girls who died in a church bombing more than three decades ago. And now Mississippi prosecutors are opening the vault on another unsolved murder case that occurred during the civil rights era; 19 civil-rights-era murder cases have been reopened in recent years.

Can justice really be served after the fact?

Merrida, let me ask you to step back for a second. I know that you have defended these people. Some would argue -- or the argument I have heard made goes like this: that perhaps so long after the crime that many of the perpetrators probably are already dead anyway, that it is probably not a good idea to go to try and reopen or continue to open these cases, that perhaps many people would be just better off if things were left the way they were and people could go on with their lives.

COXWELL: Well, I heard that a lot as Mr. Beckwith's lawyer. And that was not something -- I mean, I have a personal opinion on that. There is no statute of limitations on murder. And if you look at it from the standpoint of victims' families, I mean, nobody has stopped looking for war criminals from World War II.

And I think they have a right -- you know, the victims' families have a right to have these cases brought back up and there to be closure on them. Even as a defense lawyer, I mean, I feel that way. And if the prosecution can meet the burden of proof and you survive speedy-trial and due process challenges, and a jury renders a good verdict, and the defense lawyer has done everything that he can, then the right result has been reached.

So, I mean, I have heard African-Americans and white people tell me bringing back Mr. Beckwith's case was waste of time. I didn't concern myself with that. I was concerned with trying to marshal a defense for Mr. Beckwith.

COSSACK: John, in terms of trying to weigh the ability to get a fair trial, the notion of that what we try and believe in this country, due process, vs. the political climate in any these kinds of cases that you and Merrida are involved with, is it worth going ahead and trying to have these kinds of cases or does just justice lose by definition?

ROBBINS: Well, I don't think there is really philosophically a problem with reopening these cases. And you know, Roger, I mean, the standard is, if a prosecution deliberately withholds prosecuting the case, deliberately delays it to gain a tactical advantage, that being where we think the jury pool would be better, then there are some due process concerns.

And I think, in each of the cases that have been brought, those issues have been addressed. So I don't have a philosophical problem. The problem is making sure you have the evidence, making sure you have the evidence and do not put the defendant in a position to prove he is innocent.

COSSACK: All right, John, that is the last word for you, I'm afraid, because that is all the time we have for today.

Thanks to our guests. Thank for you watching.

And join us again tomorrow for another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. I'll see you then.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

Back to the top