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A Long Road To Justice

A Mississippi family had to wait more than three decades for it, but they got what they wanted: justice.

A multiracial jury deliberated for just over two hours last Friday, then convicted the mastermind of the 1966 firebombing that killed a local civil rights leader. For the family of Vernon Dahmer, justice delayed was not justice denied. His wife, Ellie Dahmer, rejoiced outside the courtroom following the conviction of the man that ordered her husband's death.

"I'm filled with joy," she said. "The tears I'm shedding, I'm shedding for Vernon, because I know he's looking at us today."

Vernon Dahmer was a farmer, businessman, and the head of the local NAACP. He had infuriated some in the community when he began collecting the poll tax from blacks at his small general store. That tax enabled them to register to vote.

On Jan. 10, 1966, two carloads of Klansmen with 12 gallons of gasoline and shotguns attacked Vernon Dahmer's house. The men hurled the gasoline into the house where Dahmer, his three children, and wife slept. Dahmer was so badly burned that the skin came loose from his arms, but he continued to fire his shotgun out the door so his family could escape.

The day after the attack, Dahmer died of his injuries. In four trials, the alleged architect of the murder plot, Sam Bowers, head of Mississippi's notorious white knights of the Ku Klux Klan, escaped conviction.

It wasn't until this year that state prosecutors, armed with fresh evidence and key witnesses, brought new indictments against the former Klan leader and two others who had escaped justice for 32 years. On Friday, Sam Bowers, now 73, was ordered to spend the rest of his life in prison for the murder of Vernon Dahmer.

Ellie Dahmer says her husband would be glad to know that their efforts to reopen the case finally proved fruitful. "He would be happy we didn't give up," she says. "We continued to push in spite of all the problems we had bringing this to justice. We got strength from each other."

Her son, Vernon Dahmer Jr., adds that the racial make-up of the jury may have helped. But he also praises elected officials in Mississippi. "They will not and they do not tolerate the likes of Sam Bowers. Consequently, the jurors were not afraid to hand down a guilty verdict.

"We must remember," he continues, "that Sam Bowers was a vicious man. He did some horrible things. And he was allowedÂ…to go freely through the black community and burn and beat and kill innocent citizens. And back in those days, you couldn't find a jury that would convict him. But today is a new day"

The trials are not completely over, however. Two other Klansmen who are part of Bowers' group are awaiting trial now. One of them has been charged with murder and arson and the other with just arson.

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