Law And Justice In Mississippi

Municipal and federal police stand next to the body of a fallen officer after gunmen attacked a municipal police car in the northern border city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Nov. 7, 2010. AP Photo

Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and CBSNews.com.



It was over so quickly that you might think that the jurors and the witnesses and the judge and the lawyers all had non-refundable tickets for a cruise somewhere and weren't willing to miss their planes for a simple murder trial. Edgar Ray Killen, the Mississippi Burning defendant, was tried and convicted of manslaughter in just a few days, less time than it takes most lawyers to pick a jury for a murder case.

Killen was convicted of manslaughter, not murder, for whatever role he played in the deaths of three civil rights workers who were brutally murdered 41 years ago to the day near Philadelphia, Miss. He was convicted even though there was very little strong evidence against him. He was convicted even though his jury initially was deadlocked at 6-6 after only a few short hours of deliberations. He was convicted even though he is old and sick and almost pitiful until you realize who he was and what he represented a generation ago.

There is nothing particularly complicated about the result here. In the end the jurors weren't poring over the fine points of Mississippi state law or contemplating the different elements that distinguish murder from manslaughter. If this had been the case, the deliberations would have lasted a lot longer. No, in the end, these jurors wanted to send a message that says that they believe beyond a reasonable doubt that Killen had something to do with those long-ago murders — even if the details aren't exactly clear after all this time.

It's a black message and a white message since Killen's jury this time was interracial, unlike his last jury, in 1967, which was made up only of whites. It was a legal message and a political message and an historical message. The Ghosts of Mississippi now can rest a little easier. The complete story may never be known or told. But now at least this chapter seems to have been wrapped up, as neatly as an old, hazy tale told by old men and old women can be.
  • Lloyd Vries

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