Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood is personally interviewing potential witnesses in the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers here, he said on Tuesday.
Hood announced Friday that he has sought help from the U.S. Justice Department in the unprosecuted murders here on June 21, 1964, saying that the combined efforts could produce new evidence and testimony.
“I talked to several (witnesses) because I don’t want some investigator to tell me about that person,” Hood said.
The Attorney General said he preferred to “eyeball my witnesses” and noted that just last week he was in Meridian until 9 p.m., interviewing a potential witness in the case.
“There are some out there who I believe have information that they’ve yet to reveal,” said Hood.
The AG said he’s solidly committed to solving the Neshoba murders if at all possible.
“When I lay my head on my pillow at night I want to know that I’ve done the right thing. A lot of it’s just for my own personal knowledge and the satisfaction of knowing the facts,” he said.
Neshoba County District Attorney Mark Duncan said he hopes through Hood’s diligence and a re-examination of the evidence by federal authorities new evidence or testimony will turn up.
“I think it’s probably to the point where the Attorney General’s office and the state prosecutors have done all they know to do,” Duncan said. “I think what Jim (Hood) wants to do is have another set of eyes to look at it to see if there’s something they’ve missed.”
Special Assistant Attorney General Lee Martin concurred with Duncan, saying not only will turning the case over to the federal authorities bring more resources to the table, but that they may see something others haven’t.
“What they can give us is a fresh or different perspective of the evidence that’s available to support a state charge of murder,” Martin said.
Martin said one key piece of evidence, the informant files compiled by the FBI in 1964, may shed some light on the case. The files were not available to state prosecutors.
Hood emphasized that it’s never too late for new information or witnesses to come forward.
He said if there is ever going to be victory in this case now is the time for those people who have withheld vital information to come forward.
“There’s somebody up there sitting on that information thinking about meeting their Maker,” Hood said. “They need to do the right thing and tell law enforcement.”
The tactic of turning an old case over to federal officials is similar to that used in 2001 and 2002 in the successful prosecution of the last two living suspects in the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four girls.
The decision comes on the hills of the Justice Department’s decision to reinvestigate the 1955 killing of Emmett Till in the Delta.
In the summer of 1964 Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman were murdered in Neshoba County.
The trio was part of a broader national movement that hoped to begin a voter registration drive in this area, part of the Mississippi Summer Project, what became know as Freedom Summer.
In mid-June, Chaney and Schwerner traveled to Oxford, Ohio, to participate in the Freedom Summer volunteers training session being held there. While they were away, on June 16, Klansman assaulted members of the Mt. Zion church, looking for Chaney and Schwerner. Later in the evening, they burned the church to the ground. Having been alerted of the attack, Chaney and Schwerner, joined by new volunteer Goodman, immediately drove south to investigate and offer solace to the church members.
On Sunday afternoon, June 21, Father’s Day, the three young men drove to Philadelphia from Meridian and visited members of Mt. Zion. On the way back through town they were pulled over by a sheriff’s deputy. Chaney was charged with speeding and Schwerner and Goodman were held on suspicion of burning the Mt. Zion church.
Later that night the three were murdered, their bodies found 44 days later buried in an earthen dam. They had been beaten and shot.
The announcement that federal prosecutors are involved comes only two days after community leaders called for justice. (See story page 1A).
Hood said the announcement by the leaders didn’t necessarily spur him to seek help from federal officials, saying he was already reviewing the case.