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Ex-Klansman Killen Gets Maximum 60-Yr Sentence for Manslaughter Charge in 1964 Mississippi Killings

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Former Ku Klux Klans leader Edgar Ray Killen was sentenced Thursday to 60 years in prison for the killing of three civil rights workers in 1964. The judge down the maximum sentence–20 years for each killing–for the lesser charge of manslaughter. We speak with the brother of Michael Schwerner. [includes rush transcript]

Former Ku Klux Klans leader Edgar Ray Killen was sentenced Thursday to 60 years in prison for the killing of three civil rights workers in 1964.

Killen had been found guilty of felony manslaughter two days earlier in the killings of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner 41 years ago. The verdict was less severe than the more serious charge of murder that prosecutors had initially sought.

Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon handed down the maximum sentence yesterday–20 years for each killing. Judge Gordon said, “Each life has value. There were three lives involved in this case and the three lives should absolutely be respected and treated equally.” The sentence will likely keep the 80 year-old Killen locked up for the rest of his life.

Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney were helping African Americans register to vote in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer civil rights campaign when they were killed on June 21, 1964.

Prosecutors charged that Killen organized a posse to kidnap, beat and shoot the three civil rights workers and then bulldoze their bodies under an earthen dam.

Last week we spoke with Carolyn Goodman, the mother of Andrew Goodman as well as Ben Chaney, brother of James Chaney. Today we speak with another relative of one of the victims, Steven Schwerner–brother of Michael Schwerner.

  • Steven Schwerner, a retired dean and faculty member at Antioch College. His brother Michael Schwerner was murdered in 1964 in Mississippi along with James Chaney and Andrew Goodman.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week we spoke with Caroline Goodman, the mother of Andrew Goodman, as well as Ben Chaney, the brother of James Chaney. Today we speak with Steven Schwerner, the brother of Mickey Schwerner. He joins us on the line from Yellow Springs, Ohio. Welcome to Democracy Now!

STEVEN SCHWERNER: I’m glad to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. First of all, your reaction to the verdicts and the sentence.

STEVEN SCHWERNER: Well, although the verdict should have been murder, I think that it’s entirely possible it never would have ended in a verdict. It would have ended in a hung jury. And so the manslaughter charge seems to be as good as one can get. The sentencing, reasonable. I liked what the judge had to say about all three lives being equally important, because it’s — I think you’ve heard me before say that we know that in 1964, if it was only Jim Chaney who was missing, it never would have made national news, and that there were many other identified and unidentified black bodies found in the search for the three young men, and the people who killed them have never been prosecuted, and indeed, those names and histories have never made national television. So, it was the case in 1964, and it probably still is now, although it was nice to see the judge acknowledge that the black person is worth as much as a white person.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in following the trial yourself, what, in your opinion, led the jury not to convict on the more serious charge of murder?

STEVEN SCHWERNER: I can’t speculate on that. I have heard things ranging from that there were people on the jury who just simply wouldn’t do it to defense lawyers who argue that because of three major witnesses having passed away and because a lot of the testimony has to be read into the record from a federal case, not a state case, that it would have been hard to do. I’m not an attorney, so I don’t know the answer to that. I am in some ways — the sentence imposed by the judge amounts to the same thing as a murder conviction, because Mr. Killen is now so old that he won’t leave jail.

It would be nice if the state would bring some more of the people who were involved to the bench, but more important than those things, to me, more important than the individual Klan members is I’m hoping that what this trial can do is bring more pressure to bear to look at what was the state complicity in the formation of the White Citizens’ Councils and the White Citizens’ Council’s help to the Ku Klux Klan, the State Sovereignty Commission, which was an arm of the state government, which identified civil rights workers, and the fact that the tone in the state was that it’s okay to maim, harm and even kill people who were working for civil rights.

I’m interested in knowing what the F.B.I. complicity in all of that was. How much did the F.B.I. know before the murders, and what did they do about it, what did they do about civil rights workers? There was a really interesting piece in yesterday’s Washington Post by a young man named Ron Carver, who talked about the day that the bodies were missing, calling the F.B.I. and getting a promise from John Doar that the F.B.I. would investigate, and the F.B.I. never investigating. And one speculates what would have happened if an F.B.I. agent had come to the Meridian jail. There was a man from the Justice Department in Meridian, Mississippi, the day they disappeared, who was asked two times to go to the Neshoba County jail to see if they were there and refused on both counts — both times because he felt that — he said anyhow that he was just an investigator, he was not a law enforcement official.

So I’m interested in people looking at the complicity of both the state and federal government up and down the line, and it seems to me that until that gets looked at, we still have only gone part of the way and that we’re not going to get over those brutal murders of the past, not only of the three Killen was convicted of, but so many others. There’s so many people, African Americans, killed in Mississippi and surrounding areas during that era that — where the killers have not been brought to justice, and perhaps never will.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Steven Schwerner, brother of Michael Schwerner, one of the three civil rights workers killed 41 years ago, for which Edgar Ray Killen has been found guilty of manslaughter, sentenced to the maximum 60 years, the maximum for that charge of manslaughter. Steve Schwerner, I wanted to ask you about this piece in the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger, which says that Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon gave Edgar Ray Killen the maximum sentence of 60 years in prison, but it could be several years before the reputed Klan leader goes there. That’s because Killen’s lead counsel, Mitch Moran of Carthage, said he’ll ask the judge to allow the 80-year-old union sawmill operator and part-time preacher to remain free on bond while appealing his three-count manslaughter conviction for the killings. Appeals can take several years, prosecutors say they’ll oppose the appeal bond request. That’s expected to be heard at 9:00 a.m. Monday in Neshoba County Circuit Court.

STEVEN SCHWERNER: I’m sorry. I didn’t understand what your question was, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, they’re saying that he may not go to jail for years.

STEVEN SCHWERNER: Well, I understand that and, as I say, I’m not an attorney, and I don’t know the intricacies of Mississippi law. I would personally hope that the judge does not free him on bail. I assume the judge has an option on that and that it’s at his discretion. The judge knows that Killen was the ring leader of the murder. I mean, everybody in Neshoba County knows it, but the judge knows a great deal of the evidence that the prosecution had that was not allowed to be put into trial simply because witnesses had died, that there were — there was one witness who testified to the F.B.I. that he had been in the room when Sam Bowers told Edgar Killen that Mickey Schwerner should be eliminated. There was another who was one of the drivers of the cars who testified as to what Edgar Ray Killen was planning and what he was doing. Both of them died before their testimony could get into a court, although the F.B.I. has their testimony. Cecil Price, I’m told, who was the initial deputy sheriff who arrested the three men, was prepared to become the state’s witness, and he also passed away. So that — and the judge knows all of this, so my hope is that, of course, that the judge will take all of that into consideration and that he does have the option and will not release him on bail. That remains to be seen Monday morning.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, you know, Amy, I’m not a lawyer, either, but in the more than 27 years now of covering scores of criminal cases, I have never seen in New York state, at least, a defendant convicted of a murder or a crime be released on bail while appeal is pending. So, I don’t know what Mississippi state law is.

STEVEN SCHWERNER: To me, the importance of the conviction and the sentencing yesterday was not so much personal as that it sent a message to the area, and that I know from talking to people who are in Philadelphia and spending some time, for instance, talking to my sister-in-law, Rita, that the sentence was greeted with great relief, with great sense of — that we have made some progress, that we have made some steps. It seems to me the judge is aware of this, and should they release him on bail, which means he might stay out of jail for the rest of his life, I think that a lot of local people will feel that it becomes another whitewash and another ’let’s not worry about somebody who killed these folks.’ And so, I think he will be under a lot of pressure not to allow for bail, but as I said, we’ll have to see Monday.

AMY GOODMAN: Steve Schwerner, I want to thank you very much for joining us, retired Dean of Antioch College, the brother of Michael Schwerner, one of the three civil rights activitists killed 41 years ago. Edgar Ray Killen has been sentenced to 60 years in prison for their murder. We will see if he goes to jail.

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