Last month it was my duty to serve on the jury in the trial of Edgar Ray Killen. It was my unpleasant charge to decide the fate of a fellow human. In the course of my 55 years I have survived a war, earned a bachelor’s degree, suffered and exalted, traveled the world and worked my way from high school dropout to senior engineer. Still, nothing prepared me for this, nor did any of the other 11 jurors seem any less humbled by this task. No one took this lightly.
My fellow jurors seemed to be a good representation of the people of Philadelphia, Miss., and Neshoba County. None of us wore Italian leather. Nobody was dressed in rags. We ranged in age from our 30s to our 60s. All of us were literate and soft-spoken and working people. And we were all familiar with the story of the three civil rights workers who had disappeared from our town in 1964 and whose bodies had been found only after a 44-day search.
It is unfortunate that I feel I must also point out that none of us was dirty, or barefoot, or smelly. None of us sat glassy-eyed, eating peanuts or chewing tobacco. None of us laughed at the brutal murders of three people. Nobody made any jokes. And no one argued that participation in the Ku Klux Klan was understandable given “the times,” or that those “Yankee boys” brought all this on themselves, or that after “all this time” we should let this pass by the way. In short, nobody I saw, either in demeanor or in action, fit the stereotype of Mississippi that seems so prevalent, even today.
So why did we find Killen guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter, instead of murder? The answer is easy, yet it will be entirely unacceptable to people who need to find some conspiracy or who need to validate their own system of stereotypes and prejudices. We found Killen guilty of manslaughter because that’s what the evidence supported.
I don’t think there was one of us who did not have a good idea of what went on in Neshoba County in June 1964. I don’t think any of us had much doubt as to Killen’s role in those horrible events. What I do know with certainty is that Killen did not have any special friends in that jury room. The jury was initially split between those who felt he was guilty and wanted to convict him of murder and those who felt he was guilty and were frustrated because the state did not present sufficient evidence to convict him under the jury instructions.
Still, we followed the law and the court’s instructions. We did not enter into some exercise of “jury nullification” – in which jurors vote according to their convictions rather than by the law as prescribed – either for or against Killen. As it was put to me by a fellow juror: “If your brother was on trial here, wouldn’t you want him tried according to the law?”
In order to convict Killen on murder charges, according to our jury instructions, it had to be proved that he had pulled the trigger or that others had been acting under his specific direction to kill the three men. What we heard in court was that Killen told some people in Meridian that three civil rights workers “needed their asses tore up” and then showed these people where to sit and wait for the three in Philadelphia. But it was not established that he gave them any instructions to perform a specific act.
We focused on what was presented in the courtroom, not what we’d heard over the last 41 years, and not what we either assumed or wished to be true. Had we convicted that man of murder in the absence of proper evidence, knowing even at the very least that he was certainly guilty in any reasonable moral sense, we would have been acting in the same spirit as the Ku Klux Klan. We would have been setting the law aside and subverting the process to suit our own purposes. Killen received a fair verdict, based on the evidence.
Keep in mind that this nation has changed over the decades. Just as the Californians who in 1943 sentenced young Latino “zoot suiters” from Los Angeles to hard time in San Quentin on trumped-up charges are long gone, so too are those who ruled the law, politics and social order of Mississippi in the 1960s. It is a new day everywhere – including in Mississippi.
As to people who claim there is still prejudice in Mississippi, well, of course there is. There will always be those who need to “get a life,” who will substitute intolerance where they lack compassion, ideology where they lack imagination. There will also always be those who make their business inflaming the passions of such people. Among those are KKK leaders like Killen and demagogues who preach to the cameras on the courthouse steps. All the rest of us can do is to do unto others as we would have others do unto us.
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