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Mississippi Man Sentenced for 1964 Civil Rights Murders

Edgar Ray Killen

A judge in the U.S. state of Mississippi has sentenced an 80-year-old man to 60 years in prison for the killings of three civil rights workers more than 40 years ago. The sentence is expected to bring to a close one of the most bitter episodes of the U.S. civil rights era.

Edgar Ray Killen, an 80-year-old sawmill operator, part-time Baptist preacher and alleged leader of the hate group, the Ku Klux Klan, was given the maximum sentence of 60 years in prison, after being convicted on three counts of manslaughter on Tuesday.

The conviction came 41 years to the day after three young civil rights workers, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, were murdered. The three disappeared after being briefly arrested near Philadelphia, Mississippi. They had been registering voters in Mississippi in the so-called freedom summer of 1964.

Their bodies were found several weeks later, and 19 men, including Edgar Ray Killen, were tried in 1967 on federal civil rights charges. Seven men were convicted in that case, but Edgar Ray Killen was set free, after the jury deadlocked.

Mr. Killen, who said he was innocent of the charges, was re-tried on state murder charges this year, after new evidence based on secret testimony implicated him as the leader of the group that killed the three civil rights workers.

A mixed race jury found him guilty of manslaughter in the three killings, but was unable to find him guilty of the more serious charge of murder. In passing sentence on Thursday, Judge Marcus Gordon commended the jury, saying it made a difficult decision that will be criticized by people on both sides of the case.

"No doubt they may be subjected to some criticism," he said. "They may be subjected to some abuse and some ridicule. Yet, you just have to remember that they are citizens, who are here to perform an unpleasant duty, and they did so. I respect those persons and you all who are here, who are critical of the judgment of the jury, those of you who believe the jury should have found Mr. Killen not guilty, and those of you who believe that the findings of manslaughter are wrong, and they should have found the persons guilty of murder - you have to remember that, no doubt these persons attempted to follow the evidence to the best of their ability."

Edgar Ray Killen's lawyers say they will appeal the verdict.

All three of the victims were in their early 20's 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, led to a federal crackdown on the Ku Klux Klan.

Prosecutors across 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 African-American, who was kidnapped and killed in Mississippi in 1955, and they are expected to reopen that case in the near future.