By TIM KALICH
Edgar Ray Killen is not ready to concede he will die in prison.
Eleven years after being convicted of plotting the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, and almost three years after the U.S. Supreme Court presumably turned back his last avenue for appeal, the 91-year-old inmate says he sees a way out if he can get a court to hear his case.
His legal strategy for being set free? That’s a secret, he says.
That caginess is typical of the man who calls himself “the most hated white man in Mississippi” — a distinction he seems to take pride in while claiming it has been unjustly acquired.
Killen recently agreed to an interview with the Commonwealth, only the second time he has talked with the press since being incarcerated following his 2005 conviction on three counts of manslaughter in the deaths of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney.
Those murders of two white New Yorkers and a black Mississippian sparked national outrage and a massive FBI investigation, dubbed “Mississippi Burning,” which also became the title of a 1988 movie loosely based on the case.
Killen talked for four hours with the Commonwealth in the visitation room at Unit 31 at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. Unit 31 is the medical unit at the prison, where Killen is confined in a wheelchair because of heart problems and severe injuries he suffered in a logging accident about three months prior to the 2005 state trial.
The interview, held Aug. 14, was conducted under less-than-ideal conditions. Due to prison regulations, no cameras or other recording devices were allowed, nor even writing materials. The room was noisy with other inmates and their visitors. A curious toddler, there to see another inmate, periodically interrupted.
Despite the distractions, Killen was animated and talkative. By the end of the interview, a nasty abscess oozed a trickle of blood down the back of his bald head. But otherwise — despite saying he had spent the previous couple of weeks “wrestling with the Grim Reaper” — Killen seemed in good spirits.
His hearing is not the best. He struggles at times with his memory or in finding just the right word to express himself. When that happens, he points to his head and blames it on a brain injury he says he suffered when the tree hit him. He acknowledges veering off in tangents but doesn’t object to being reeled back in.
Killen is serving three consecutive 20-year sentences. His tentative release date, if he were to get parole, is Sept. 1, 2027 — when he would be 102 years old.
He continues to maintain, as he has through two trials and over the 52 years since the three men’s bodies were found buried in an earthen dam, that he is innocent.
“I will be exonerated someday, although I might not live to see it,” he said.
Though Killen denies having anything to do with the murders, he said he would have been a willing participant if he had learned prior to their deaths that “they were recruiting and coaching young black bucks to rape a white woman once a week.”
He said, “Had I known it ahead of time, I might have been the trigger man.”
Killen’s unsubstantiated claim that the murders constituted justifiable homicide is not new. According to “We Are Not Afraid,” a history of the case written by Seth Cagin and Philip Dray, Killen tried it out first during the 1967 federal trial in which a jury hung up on his guilt while convicting seven Klansmen of apprehending the three civil rights workers, shooting them and hiding their dead bodies. Killen claims he can prove his allegation if the U.S. Justice Department would turn over all of its files in the case to him.
Rita Schwerner Bender, when informed of Killen’s comment, said she did not want to dignify with a response his effort to malign her late husband.
“It’s just so offensive,” she said. “Giving any dignity to this is not useful.”
As to Killen’s professed innocence, Bender, an attorney in Seattle, was not moved.
“All I can say is that he’s not the first person convicted of a crime who has sung that song,” she said.
Chaney’s sister, Julia Chaney-Moss, is likewise not surprised that Killen remains defiant.
“His responses certainly are not anything new or that I would not have expected a person of his nature to say. It’s just that it saddens me to hear again this kind of thought processes that he has,” said Chaney-Moss, who was 17 at the time her brother was murdered and, after spending 45 years in human services work, is now retired in Willingboro, New Jersey.
She said, “I have long since forgiven Killen and his ilk in this situation and have prayed that each of them could have at this juncture an opportunity to rethink and would take it and do just that. But again, a life lived and choices have been made, and he is who he has always been, and so be it.”
Killen describes himself as an unapologetic segregationist, an ultra right-winger, a strident anti-communist and an uncompromising man of God.
All of those characteristics intertwine in his conversations about not only the “Mississippi Burning” case but most everything on which he reflects.
He talks fondly about his long association with the late U.S. Sen. James O. Eastland, a staunch opponent of civil rights legislation. Killen said he was the “hatchet man” for both Eastland and former Gov. Ross Barnett, another ardent defender of segregation. Killen said he would go into Mississippi towns before the politicians appeared and talk up their bona fides on subjects that the candidates themselves might not want to address publicly.
He claims he has never been a member of the Ku Klux Klan, contrary to the testimony of witnesses at both of his trials that he was a major organizer of the Philadelphia chapter of the white supremacist organization, which terrorized blacks and their white allies before and during the civil rights movement. He said he doesn’t trust the Klan but also has “nothing against them.”
He said his infamy has followed him to prison, where he is verbally harassed by black inmates and mistreated by some black prison guards. At the start of the interview, he avoided racial epithets, but by the end he was using the N-word regularly to refer to his alleged Parchman adversaries.
At one point, he motioned over a black female guard and said she is one of his favorites. When asked what she thought about Killen, she smiled and responded, “He’s all right.”
He’s hoping that Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for president, wins the November election. He said, however, that he doesn’t like the bravado the billionaire real estate developer showed on the reality game show “The Apprentice,” which typically ended with Trump eliminating one of the contestants with the words “You’re fired.”
“I had hundreds of people work for me, and I never fired a single one,” said Killen, a former sawmill owner and operator.
As for Democrat Hillary Clinton, Killen is not a fan.
“If Hillary Clinton is elected president, you can kiss this country goodbye,” he said.
He calls Lyndon Johnson, who signed both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year, the most crooked president in U.S. history. Richard Nixon, who resigned from office to avoid impeachment, remains one of Killen’s favorites. He claims Nixon, through then-Attorney General John Mitchell, called off the FBI from pursuing Killen further a couple of years after his 1967 prosecution ended in a mistrial.
According to a Justice Department report released in June, federal investigators did try to reconnect with Killen a few years ago. They approached his attorney in 2012, requesting an opportunity to meet with the inmate to talk about his possible cooperation in prosecuting the few remaining suspects still living from the “Mississippi Burning” case.
“Killen’s attorney contacted his client and responded that Killen advised that he knew nothing about the 1964 murders and that he was unwilling to meet with us,” the report says. “Killen’s attorney further advised that nothing, not even a potential nominal state sentence reduction, would alter his client’s position.”
Both federal and state authorities announced also in June that they were closing their investigations, saying there was no likelihood of additional convictions.
Killen first contacted the Commonwealth in May, saying he wanted to correct the record on the jailhouse interview he gave a year and a half earlier to Jack Elliott Jr. of The Associated Press, now retired. “He copied info printed 50 years ago and his writings were so far out, it surprised me,” Killen wrote.
He said “95 percent” of the media coverage he has received has been inaccurate. He particularly objects to what he claims has been a pattern of minimizing his role as an ordained Baptist minister, from which he got the nickname “Preacher.” He said he was a minister for more than six decades and pastored 14 churches in east-central Mississippi. “Some years I pastored thousands of members (at least tried),” he wrote.
He holds particular disdain for Jerry Mitchell, the award-winning longtime investigative reporter for The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, whose digging into the “Mississippi Burning” case and other old civil rights murders helped prompt authorities to take another look at prosecuting them.
He calls Mitchell “one of the most powerful men in Mississippi” and a pawn of the “Jewish-controlled media.”
“When they were leading Jesus on the way to Pilate, if Jerry Mitchell had been there, he would have spat on him,” Killen said.
Mitchell, in an emailed response, said he stood by his reporting on Killen and the Klan, “which was a terrorist organization long before those words were used to describe it. I hope and pray they will begin to understand that the true message of Christianity is not hate, but love.”
Killen refuses to contribute much to the historical record on the 1964 murders, but he let down his guard at moments during the interview. He said that Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman needed to be stopped. At the time, the three were about to embark on a concentrated “Freedom Summer” effort to register African-Americans around Meridian and Philadelphia to vote.
“Did that mean killing them?” this writer asked.
“If necessary, yes,” Killen responded without flinching.
Goodman’s brother, David Goodman of New York, said in an email that Killen’s statements “are laced with an all-too-familiar racist mythology. This mythology has been used for centuries and continues to be used today to justify heinous acts … .
“My brother and his companions’ commitment to civil rights and equality must never be forgotten.”
Although Killen is strident and impolitic in expressing himself, he also seems concerned about his public image.
At the end of the interview, as prison guards were urging visitors to finish up and get ready for the bus to take them back to the processing building, Killen made one last request.
“Give me a fair shake,” he said. “I’m not as bad as they make me out to be.”
Chaney-Moss, an ordained minister herself, said she will continue to pray for Killen’s well-being and that of his family. She hopes that this interview and other visits by outsiders might prompt a late-in-life transformation in the man held responsible for orchestrating her brother’s murder.
“I think any opportunity that he gets to be visited by anyone outside of his general family or cohort group, it presents an opportunity to rethink and to make change,” she said.
“But most of all, all the best to him.”
• Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or email@example.com.