Edgar Ray Killen, convicted in 'Mississippi Burning' killings, dead at 92

Jan 12 (Reuters) - Edgar Ray Killen, the preacher and Ku Klux Klansman convicted and sent to prison more than 40 years after he plotted the 1964 slayings of three civil rights activists in the "Mississippi Burning" case, died on Thursday night at the age of 92, Mississippi correction officials said.

Killen, who would have turned 93 on Jan. 17, was pronounced dead at the hospital at Mississippi State Penitentiary, according to a statement on the state Department of Corrections website on Friday.

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The cause and manner of death were pending an autopsy, the statement said. No foul play was suspected.

Killen, whose 2005 manslaughter conviction came on the 41st anniversary of the crime, was serving a 60-year prison sentence - the maximum 20 years for each victim. In a 2015 interview with the Associated Press, Killen refused to discuss his case but said he was still a segregationist, although he had no ill will for blacks.

The slayings of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in Philadelphia, Mississippi, on June 21, 1964, at the hands of the Klan, local law enforcement officers and others was one of the most shocking and galvanizing moments of the U.S. civil rights movement.

Historians say the outcry over the incident, which was portrayed in the 1988 Oscar-winning film "Mississippi Burning," helped win support for subsequent civil rights legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Chaney was a 21-year-old black man from Meridian, Mississippi, while Schwerner, 24, and Goodman, 20, were white New Yorkers. They were part of a campaign to register black voters in the South during the "Freedom Summer" and caught the attention of law enforcement authorities and Klansmen when they came to Philadelphia.

The three men had been taken into custody on a speeding charge and while they were detained, Killen assembled the mob that later would chase them down and kill them, prosecutors said at his 2005 trial. Killen, who operated a sawmill and was known by the nickname Preacher because he presided part time at a Baptist church, told the mob to buy gloves and how to dispose of the bodies but was not accused of being at the murder scene, the prosecution said.

22 PHOTOS
Ku Klux Klan (KKK) throughout history
See Gallery
Ku Klux Klan (KKK) throughout history
1866: A wood engraving depicting two members of the Ku Klux Klan. The white sheet and hood were supposed to represent the ghosts of Confederate soldiers risen from the dead to seek revenge. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01: Kayne Township. Ku Klux Klan Wedding In New Jersey. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
(Original Caption) Long Island, NY-Ku Klux Klan with hands raised in oath during night meeting.
20th March 1922: Members of the white supremacist movement, the Ku Klux Klan standing by an aeroplane, out of which they dropped publicity leaflets over Washington DC. (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)
(Original Caption) 1/4/1923-Homestead, FL: Photo shows gathering of the Ku Klux Klan, members of the invisible empire, at Homestead, FL., thirty miles South of Miami, and within three miles of the Southern most point of the mainland of the United States. The Imperial Wizard of he Klan is somewhere in the group. But, he just won't make himself known.
Ku Klux Klan members hold a march in Washington, DC, on August 9, 1925.
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01: Ku Klux Klan Ritual At Atlanta In Usa During Thirties (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
(Original Caption) Over 100,000 people are expected in Washington for the Klan parade and gathering. Government buildings are all guarded in case of disorder. Photo shows members of the Women's K.K.K. of Virginia marching down Pennsylvania Ave.
5/07/98 PHOTOGRAPHER: Susan Biddle - TWP Wheaton, Md. BRIEF DESCRIPTION: Darryl Davis and his KKK collection Davis, a blues pianist, meets as many KKK guys as he can to find out why they are as they are. He has a collection of robes and other KKK items such as this medallion. (KU KLUX KLAN) (Photo by Susan Biddle/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
A young protester argues with Thom Robb during a Ku Klux Klan rally in Stephenville, Texas. Robb is the national director of the Arkansas-based Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. (Photo by ?? Greg Smith/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
The Imperial Wizard of the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Don Black, wearing a suit and tie, with white-gowned Klan members in the background.
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1754: Ku Klux Klan members supporting Barry Goldwater's campaign for the presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention, San Francisco, California, as an African American man pushes signs back: 12 July 1964. Photographer: Warren K Leffler. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1754: Parade of the Ku Klux Klan, in regalia and carrying the stars and stripes, through counties of Virginia bordering on the District of Columbia, America, 1926. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
Ku Klux Klan members march through downtown Houston under heavy police protection. (Photo by Greg Smith/Corbis via Getty Images)
(Original Caption) The Ku Klux Klan failed to make good its threat to parade through the streets of this town today and instead had a small parade in Neptune City and Neptune Township. Less than 3,000 men, women, and children marched in the parade, headed by Arthur H. Bell, Grand Dragon of the Realm of New Jersey. Some of the Klansmen were robed and masked, others wore their robes with hoods lifted. (Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images)
Members of the Ku Klux Klan attend a demonstration in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. They are protesting against the Martin Luther King holiday. (Photo by mark peterson/Corbis via Getty Images)
Demonstration of the Ku Klux Klan (Photo by F. Carter Smith/Sygma via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 23: Jeffery Berry, national imperial wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (l.), Grand Dragon James Sheehy (nursing his would after being attacked), and other Klan members hold a rally at Foley Square near the New York State Supreme Court House. (Photo by Budd Williams/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
VALLEY FORGE, PA - SEPTEMBER 25: A Ku Klux Klan member shows off his tattoo during an American Nazi party member during American Nazi Party rally at Valley Forge National Park September 25, 2004 in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Hundreds of American Nazis from around the country were expected to attend. (Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)
SHARPSBURG, MD - SEPTEMBER 07: Members of the Confederate White Knights hold a flag during a rally at the Antietam National Battlefield September 7, 2013 near Sharpsburg, Maryland. The Rosedale, Maryland Ku Klux Klan group held the rally to protest against the administration of President Barack Obama and the U.S. immigration policies. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
COLUMBIA, SC - JULY 18: Ku Klux Klan members take part in a Klan demonstration at the state house building on July 18, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina. The KKK protested the removal of the Confederate flag from the state house grounds, as law enforcement tried to prevent violence between the opposing groups. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Demostrators take part in a protest against asylum seekers brought to stay at a former army barracks in the Hennala district in Lahti late September 24, 2015. Demonstrators threw stones and launched fireworks at a bus full of asylum seekers arriving at a reception centre in Lahti in southern Finland, late on Thursday, Finnish media reported on Friday. Between 30 and 40 demonstrators, one in a white robe like those worn by the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan in the United States, waved the Finnish flag and shouted abuse at the bus. Picture taken September 24, 2015. REUTERS/Heikki Ahonen/Lehtikuva ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS. FINLAND OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN FINLAND.
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NO STATE CHARGES

Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman were shot on a rural road near Killen's home and then buried 15 feet deep in an earthen dam. Their disappearance became a national news story and federal agents were sent to search for them. Thanks to an informant, the bodies were discovered 44 days after the killings.

The state of Mississippi declined to pursue murder charges in the case but in 1967, 18 men, including Killen, local Klan leader Sam Bowers and the county sheriff, were tried on federal charges of violating the victims' civil rights.

An all-white jury convicted seven of the men, including Bowers and a sheriff's deputy, and they were given sentences ranging from three to 10 years. The jury was unable to agree on a verdict for Killen with the hold-out juror saying she could never convict a preacher. The others were acquitted.

"Those boys were Communists who went to a Communist training school," Killen said of the victims in a 1998 interview with the New York Times. "I'm sorry they got themselves killed. But I can't show remorse for something I didn't do."

Killen went quietly about his life after the verdict. But reporter Jerry Mitchell of the Jackson, Mississippi, Clarion-Ledger revived interest in the case in 1998 with stories about taped interviews at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in which Bowers said he was "quite delighted to be convicted and have the main instigator of the entire affair walk out of the courtroom a free man."

Mitchell's reporting also eventually led to the convictions for Bowers in the murder of another 1960's activist, as well as Byron De La Beckwith in the 1963 assassination of NAACP leader Medgar Evers, and Bobby Cherry, who killed four girls by bombing a Birmingham, Alabama, church in 1963 - all decades after the crimes were committed.

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Forty years after the "Mississippi Burning" killings and at age 80, Killen became the first and only person to be tried for murder in the case. His attorneys conceded Killen was a member of the Klan and the trial featured testimony that he had lauded the KKK as a benevolent Christian group that would keep schools segregated. Prosecutors said he encouraged members of his congregation to join the Klan.

Killen did not testify at the trial, which was attended by Schwerner's widow and the mothers of Chaney and Goodman, and sat impassively in a wheelchair, breathing from an oxygen tank as the verdict was announced.

Much of the testimony had come from transcripts of the 1967 federal trial. With key witnesses dead and memories faded, the jurors, including three black members, said they convicted Killen of the lesser charge of manslaughter because the state's case was not strong enough to prove murder.

In June 2016, the state of Mississippi finally officially closed the case. (Writing and reporting by Bill Trott; Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Paul Simao, Chris Reese and Diane Craft)

22 PHOTOS
States with currently active KKK chapters
See Gallery
States with currently active KKK chapters

Washington

Klan groups based in state: 1

(Photo via REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Pennsylvania

Klan groups based in state: 1

(Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Oklahoma

Klan groups based in state: 1

(Photo credit ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)

Ohio

Klan groups based in state: 1

(Photo credit DAVID MAXWELL/AFP/Getty Images)
New York

Klan groups based in state: 1

(Photo credit WILLIAM EDWARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
Michigan

Klan groups based in state: 1

(Photo credit ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)
Maine

Klan groups based in state: 1

(Staff photo by Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
Louisiana

Klan groups based in state: 1

(Photo by Nathan Benn/Corbis via Getty Images)
Illinois

Klan groups based in state: 1

(Photo by Tim Boyle/Newsmakers)
Florida

Klan groups based in state: 1

(Photo via REUTERS/Chris Keane)

West Virginia

Klan groups based in state: 2

(Photo by Chet Strange/Getty Images)

Virginia

Klan groups based in state: 2

(Photo via REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
North Carolina

Klan groups based in state: 2

(Photo by NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Missouri

Klan groups based in state: 2

(Photo via REUTERS/Heikki Ahonen/Lehtikuva)
Maryland

Klan groups based in state: 2

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Georgia

Klan groups based in state: 2

(Photo by Getty Images)
Arkansas

Klan groups based in state: 2

(Photo by Greg Smith/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Texas

Klan groups based in state: 3

(Photo by Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Sygma via Getty Images)

Tennessee

Klan groups based in state: 3

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Kentucky

Klan groups based in state: 3

(Photo via REUTERS/Chris Keane)

Alabama

Klan groups based in state: 4

(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Mississippi

Klan groups based in state: 5

(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
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