[I'm honored to have collaborated with Jerry Mitchell on this article appearing on page 1 of today's Jackson Clarion-Ledger. —BG]
Lawsuit filed last week alleges civil rights violations
Jerry Mitchell and Ben Greenberg
March 1, 2010
Convicted Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen says there wasn’t enough legal evidence to imprison him for the 1964 killings of three civil rights workers and that God is going to get whoever helped put him away.
Those written remarks are among the most recent public stirrings from Killen, who also filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the FBI, alleging his civil rights were violated.
“Almighty God … is listening and is recording your acts, thoughts and deeds. One by one you will give account to him,” Killen wrote in a six-page letter obtained by The Clarion-Ledger from a Klansman. His lawyer confirmed the letter is indeed Killen’s.
District Attorney Mark Duncan, who along with Attorney General Jim Hood prosecuted Killen, responded, “I don’t have any trouble standing before God with my role in it.”
In 2005, a Neshoba County jury convicted Killen, now 85, on three counts of manslaughter for his role in the Klan’s June 21, 1964, killings of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, commonly known as the Mississippi Burning case.
The FBI is now reexamining the killings. Four suspects are still alive in the case.
In his letter, Killen lambasted prosecutors and Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon, who sentenced Killen to the maximum 60 years in prison. Killen, a former Union sawmill operator and part-time preacher, is serving his time in the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Rankin County.
Killen blamed the press and the people of Neshoba County. “You had all the news media that helped indict me for murder on three counts, which you had no legal evidence,” he wrote. “All your grand jury heard was slick tongue talk from a couple of politicians.”
Sally Beam, one of those grand jurors, said that’s not correct.
All the evidence led back to Killen, she said. “We were not out to get him, but he was the one every order went out from. The fact he’s still trying to blame somebody else just tells me his heart is still not in the right place.
“He’s still trying to cover up what needs to be exposed. If I were Edgar Ray Killen, I’d be thinking about my maker and where I’m going to be when I die. He’s a preacher. He knows about heaven and hell.”
Killen says mobster Gregory Scarpa Sr., pistol whipped “testimony” from from Clayton Lewis, a defense attorney in the 1967 federal conspiracy trial of suspects in the civil rights workers’ slayings..
The nearly 40,000 pages of FBI files in the Mississippi Burning case obtained by The Clarion-Ledger do not appear to mention Scarpa or list his informant number. Some other FBI records refer to Scarpa being brought in to help crack the Klan’s 1966 killing of Vernon Dahmer.
Killen said the FBI paid Scarpa $30,000 in reward money — an allegation FBI agents have disputed.
Retired FBI agent Jay Cochran said the reward money was delivered to Mississippi Highway Patrolman Maynard King, who told the FBI where the bodies were buried. Cochran said King was passing the $30,000 on to the person who informed King.
Philip Dray, co-author of We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney, and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi, said he’s not surprised Killen invoked God’s name since the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi often did that.
Killen said God knows what he did and that he is at peace with God, but Dray noted Killen never actually said he was innocent. “Convicted Klansmen have a special problem with justice,” he said. “Their ‘crimes’ were, in their minds, righteous. They were aimed at specific targets — meddlesome Yankees.”
In Killen’s mind, he said, “It will always be 1865.”
In the letter, Killen says he read many hidden Justice Department files. “I only read those of interest, as I was not hired and I was not a pimp, but I had security clearance, so I read and obtained straight evidence,” he says. “I am not putting some names in this letter as some are still living and believe it or not I am not a betrayer of anyone, especially my friends.”
Exactly who he refuses to betray he didn’t say.
Larry Ellis, a former inmate who has been interviewed by the FBI, said some of what the letter says mirrors much of what Killen told him behind bars.
Ellis told the FBI that Killen said he had access to these files because of his relationship with then-U.S. Sen. Jim Eastland and “did jobs” for Eastland around the country.
Killen said in his letter he had traveled to “most major cities in America.”
On those trips, he said he bragged about his hometown, his home county and his home state. Now, he said, he wants to retrace those steps and apologize.
The Clarion-Ledger obtained the letter from Cole Thornton, Imperial Wizard of the United Northern and Southern Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, who attended Killen’s 2005 trial. Thornton said Killen authorized him to release the letter and shared a note that expert Thomas Vastrick of Memphis identified as Killen’s handwriting.
Thornton, whose real name is Charles Denton, said he wants to see “the scoundrels who railroaded this fine man pay up for their deceit.”
In his lawsuit in which he seeks millions of dollars, Killen is demanding all of the federal files in the case.
Hood responded that his office has given Killen’s lawyer “every document we have in our files. The federal prosecutors assured me that they gave us all of the documents in the possession of the federal government.”
Killen remains filled with venom, Hood said. “Hate will eat up a person’s soul. As with all criminals I have had to prosecute, I still hold out hope that their souls will be redeemed.”
Killen has repeatedly referred to the three victims as communists — something the victims’ families say isn’t true.
Ben Chaney, whose brother James was among the victims, said after reading Killen’s letter, “I sort of feel bad for Mr. Killen because he’s losing. The fact is he refuses to look at reality.”
Killen needs to come clean, he said. “God knows what he did, and he knows he did something contrary to what God wants. The truth will set him free.”