It was likely the final chapter in a story that has troubled a generation. On the 41st anniversary of the disappearance of three young, idealistic civil rights workers near here, a jury pronounced Edgar Ray Killen guilty today of three counts of manslaughter in their deaths.
Mr. Killen, 80, sat in a wheelchair, the thin greenish tubes of an oxygen tank under his nose, his expression impassive as the verdict was read aloud. Throughout the courtroom, people wept – the Killen family on the right, the victims’ relatives on the left, and townspeople who have over the last few years become deeply invested in seeing the case brought to trial.
Roscoe Jones, a tall, elderly black man with tear-rimmed eyes who had worked with the three men, pushed his way through the crowd to the side of Rita Bender, a diminutive, blue-eyed white woman with cropped white hair, who had been married to one of the victims. “Excuse me,” he said, politely urgent. “Excuse me.” When he got to her, they embraced.
The disappearance of the three men, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24, and James Earl Chaney, 21, drew the national news media and hundreds of searchers to Neshoba County four decades ago, while Mississippi officials said publicly that their disappearance was a hoax designed to draw attention. When their bodies were later found under 15 feet of earth on a nearby farm, the nation’s horror galvanized the civil rights movement.