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Jury Selection Begins in 40-Year-Old Mississippi Civil Rights Murder Case

Jury selection began Monday in a 40-year-old murder case in the U.S. state of Mississippi. The case involves the killing of three young civil rights workers that shocked the nation and the world.

Edgar Ray Killen
There was heavy security at the courthouse in Philadelphia, Mississippi, on Monday, as court officials began interviewing potential jurors, who will decide the fate of Edgar Ray Killen.

The 80-year-old sawmill operator and alleged member of the hate group, the Ku Klux Klan, is accused of being the mastermind behind the murders of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman.

The three young civil rights workers disappeared just outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1964. The three were registering voters during the so-called freedom summer of 1964, when they were arrested. Just after they were released from jail, they disappeared. Their bodies were found several weeks later. The three were reported to have been beaten and shot to death by a group of Ku Klux Klansmen.

Nineteen men, including Edgar Ray Killen, were tried in 1967 on federal civil rights charges in the case. Seven men were convicted, but Edgar Ray Killen was set free, after the jury deadlocked.

The case was reopened by Mississippi authorities after a local newspaper published secret testimony by one of the defendants that implicated Mr. Killen as the leader of the group that killed the three civil rights workers.

Susan Glisson is the director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi. Speaking from Philadelphia, where she is observing the trial, Ms. Glisson says it would have been impossible in Mississippi 40 years ago to hold today's trial.

"I think it shows that the state is maturing," she said. "The state is the only institution that can bring murder charges. The federal charges in 1967 were actually conspiracy charges to deprive the three workers of their civil rights. The heavier charge is the charge of murder, so it now shows that the state is beginning to mature, but there is still a lot left to do."

All three of the victims were in their early 20s when they were murdered. James Chaney was an African-American from Mississippi. Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were white men from New York. The killings shocked the nation, and, in part, prompted a federal crackdown on the Ku Klux Klan.

Edgar Ray Killen says he is innocent of the charges. His lawyer, James McIntyre, told a television interviewer the trial should not be taking place.

"After 40 years of moving forward, and now going back and opening up an old crime like this, well, the state of Mississippi needs to be going forward, not backwards," he said.

Prosecutors in the U.S. South have reopened a number of so-called atonement cases in recent years. In 1994, they achieved a conviction in the assassination of Medgar Evers, a black civil rights leader who was killed in Mississippi. Three years ago, a man was convicted in the 1963 fire-bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four young black girls. Earlier this year, prosecutors exhumed the body of Emmit Till, a young black man who was kidnapped and killed in Mississippi in 1955, and they are expected to reopen that case.

Once jury selection is completed sometime later this week, prosecutors say the murder trial of Edgar Ray Killen could last two weeks.