‘Mississippi Burning’ Murder Case Finally Closes After 52 Years

One day short of the 52nd anniversary of the killings, prosecutors said the investigation into the case is over.

Published21 Jun 2016, 08:56 AM IST
Hot News
3 min read

One day short of the 52nd anniversary of three civil rights workers’ disappearance during Mississippi’s “Freedom Summer,” on 20 June, state and federal prosecutors said that the investigation into the killings is over. The matter has been shut and the prosecutors say nothing can be done now due to the lack of evidence.

Closing a Chapter

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said that the decision “closes a chapter” in the state’s divisive civil rights history.

The evidence has been degraded by memory over time, and so there are no individuals that are living now that we can make a case on at this point.

He said, however, that if new information comes forward because of the announcement that the case is closed, prosecutors could reconsider and pursue a case.

The 1964 killings of James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in Neshoba County sparked national outrage and helped spur the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and later went on to become the subject of the movie “Mississippi Burning.”

Inability to Move Past a Racist History

Rita Bender, a lawyer in Seattle and Schwerner’s widow, said she hopes the decision will spark further reflection in Mississippi about the state’s legacy of prejudice. She said she believes state leaders haven’t learned the lesson of the slayings, because Mississippi is still flying a state flag with the Confederate battle emblem, legislators recently passed a bill that Bender says enables discrimination against gay people, and she said the state does a poor job in providing services to African-American citizens.

As a nation, we have to come to terms without our racist past and our continuing inability to move past it.

The Slayings

Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner had worked to register African-American voters. They disappeared on 21 June 1964, while investigating the burning of a black church. Their bodies were found weeks later in an earthen dam.

Prosecution or the Lack of It

File photo from 2005. Judge Marcus Gordon talks with Edgar Ray Killen.  (Photo: AP)
File photo from 2005. Judge Marcus Gordon talks with Edgar Ray Killen.  (Photo: AP)

Hood says the US Department of Justice recently released findings to his office that led to the decision to close the case. He presented to reporters a 48-page report by the FBI, which outlines the federal investigation that ultimately led authorities to conclude the deaths were part of a Ku Klux Klan conspiracy authorised by Sam Bowers, a Mississippi Klan leader who lived in Laurel.

In 1967, eight people were convicted of federal civil rights violations related to the killings of the three workers. In 2005, Hood and the Neshoba County prosecutor won three manslaughter convictions against white supremacist Edgar Ray Killen, who remains in prison.

Hood said officials had considered possible cases against Jimmy Lee Townsend and James “Pete” Harris.

All surviving suspects were presented to a grand jury in 2005, Hood said, with grand jurors indicting only Killen. He said not enough new evidence had been developed since then for him to believe anything could change.

I think that everything has been done that could possibly be done.

Harris allegedly recruited members of the KKK in Meridian to kill the three men and Townsend allegedly remained with a disabled car on the night that other Klansman went carry out the slayings.

Harris was acquitted in the original prosecution of the case, according to the FBI report. Townsend was charged in preliminary charging documents but was never indicted, the report says.

For these participants, the good Lord will have to deal with that.

In recent years, Hood said, authorities had tried to develop a case against one person for lying to an FBI agent. But he said a witness declined to sign a statement at the last moment.

(This article has been published in arrangement with AP and has been edited for length.)

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