The attorney for a Neshoba County man accused of triple murder in one of the most notorious crimes of the civil rights era which occurred here four decades ago said he believes a March 28 trial date is unrealistic but doesn’t know if he’ll ask for a continuation.
The accused man, Edgar Ray “Preacher” Killen, was released from the Neshoba County Jail on $250,000 bond last Wednesday afternoon, having pleaded not guilty on Jan. 7 to three counts of murder in connection with the deaths of three civil rights workers here on June 21, 1964.
Killen, of 10651 Road 515, Union and who turned 80 on Monday, is being represented by attorney W. Mitchell Moran of Carthage.
Killen, a reputed former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, is charged with the murders of James Chaney, 21, of Meridian and Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24, both New Yorkers.
According to FBI files and transcripts from a 1967 civil case, Killen helped plan the murders.
The transcripts are reported to be part of the prosecution’s case, which under Mississippi law are admissible.
Moran says his client is innocent. “He plead not guilty and states emphatically he is not guilty. I’m going to do my job. He said he has a conscience and it is clear and I believe him,” Moran said this week.
District Attorney Mark Duncan did not object to the setting of Killen’s bail, telling the court that the prosecution did not deem Killen a flight risk or a danger to the community.
Killen’s bond was posted shortly after court recessed Wednesday morning.
As a special condition of the bond, Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon ordered Killen to check in with the Sheriff’s Office “each and every Monday” at 9 a.m., to notify authorities of his whereabouts.
Killen called in before 10 a.m., on Monday, “talked to my chief deputy” and reported he was at home, said Neshoba County Sheriff Larry Myers.
The judge set other dates in connection with the upcoming trial including: Jan. 31 for discovery; Feb. 4, for any objections; and March 4, to hear motions.
Killen, in prison orange, entered and left the Neshoba County Courthouse wearing a bulletproof vest amid heightened security.
Moran said Killen should be presumed innocent and given a fair trial.
“You have to wonder if the political climate is dictating who we prosecute and when we prosecute,” Moran said of the case.
“There is a suspicion (in this case) with the time frame, but until I see the evidence it is hard to make a statement to that effect,” he said.
“The facts and evidence have been diminished and one has to wonder was it a crime not to indict him 40 years ago. Is justice being served by putting an 80-year-old man in jail?”
Moran expects to examine the 44,000 pieces of evidence in the case and said a lot of it could be irrelevant.
“I don’t know how long it will take to go over everything until I actually have access to everything the prosecutor has,” he said.
The attorney does not suspect they will seek a change of venue because he said there’s a lot of support for the case in the county and Killen wants the trial in Neshoba County.
Moran, 43, worked for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians before going into private practice in Carthage seven years ago.
Some of those present for Killen’s hearing last week expressed concern that the bond set by the judge was too low.
“I didn’t like it,” said Jewel Rush McDonald, who remembers her mother and brother being beaten by the Klan in 1964 but chose to black it out for many years.
“Now it’s all coming back just like it was yesterday,” she said.
She had hoped that Killen would be denied bond and thought the amount was too low.
“Apparently the district attorney felt that he could not deny his bond, but I certainly didn’t like it. I don’t like him being out on bond. Whether he is a threat to society, I don’t know, he may be. I don’t know because I don’t know him. I just thought the $250,000 was too low.”
McDonald plans to attend the trial.
“My mom and brother were beaten that night at the church. They were bloody. My brother was beaten with brass knuckles and my mother was beaten in the head with a gun. They were beaten pretty bad.”
Johnny Brazzle also thought Killen’s bond was not enough.
Brazzle, who was living on the Coast at the time of the murders, said he was saddened that someone could have so much hate in their hearts as to murder the three young men.
He attended Killen’s hearing just to see what was happening.
Killen has long been the reputed Ku Klux Klan leader who masterminded the murders that provoked an outpouring of national support for the civil rights movement and put Philadelphia on the map.
Killen was arrested on the triple murder charges the evening of Jan. 6.
Myers, along with his chief deputy, picked up Killen at his home in rural Neshoba County without incident at about 5:45 p.m., about an hour after a grand jury left the courthouse.
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said other suspects were presented to the grand jury but only Killen was indicted
He urged citizens to come forward with information surrounding the case.
Already about 15 people have provided information, according to reports.
Those with information in the case are urged to call the Attorney General at 601-359-4381.
Until this year the state never brought murder charges in the killings.
The men were part of the “Freedom Summer” program in Mississippi in which young civil rights workers organized voter education and registration campaigns.
The trio disappeared on Father’s Day when they went to investigate a fire at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in the Longdale community east of Philadelphia.
The church had been burned June 16 by the Klan.
The seven men convicted on the civil rights violations served prison terms ranging from three to 10 years, but none of the men served more than six years.
Killen was acquitted in the civil case.
At the hearing last Wednesday sheriff’s deputies, city police officers and other law enforcement were posted at each entrance to the courthouse for the bond hearing while those going upstairs to the courtroom had to pass through metal detectors.
Officers also manned the doors leading into the courtroom where about 100 people, many of them members of the media, gathered for the bond hearing, including about 15 of Killen’s family members.
Last week a Killen family member struck a cameraman and, shortly thereafter, a bomb threat was called in to 911 which caused the sheriff to evacuate the courthouse.