Killen Trial: A Closer Look, Part 5

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Edgar Ray Killen is a man with a notorious reputation, but does the reputation fit who he actually is? That depends on whom you ask.

Killen is not a rich man and he's never held any kind of political office, but three murders 40 years ago have kept his name in the spotlight until now, when the glare has gotten especially bright.

This is the image most people currently have of Edgar Ray Killen, aged and disheveled, being shuffled in and out of jail and court. It is not the picture most who know him have of the man, especially in the community where he's lived, in this home, for practically all his life.

Just ask the people at Carquest Auto Parts in Union. Killen has spent many hours in this shop talking to John Keith Henry.

"He's just about as laid back a fellow as you'll ever meet. He'll sit here and talk to you about any subject you want to talk about forever," Henry said.

Talking is Killen's nature and those who know him say he does a lot of it. That's something that helped him during his decades as a Baptist preacher. He's not preaching anymore, but his brother says it's not because he can't.

"He's still a good preacher," said Kenneth Killen. "He can pray as good a prayer as you've ever heard."

But those who believe he was involved in the murders of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman see more than just the outgoing personality.

"Personally, he's a likeable person, but his involvement in this case reveals a dark side," said Stanley Dearman, former editor of the Neshoba Democrat newspaper.

That is, if he was involved, something a jury wasn't able to make a decision on in a federal trial in 1967.

During that trial, testimony was heard that painted him as the organizer and leader of the group that eventually killed the three civil rights workers and buried their bodies in an earthen dam.

An FBI informant said then that Killen planned the murders and gathered the group of men who kidnapped the three. The testimony revealed that he was not there when they were killed. Killen says he was at a funeral home at the time.

The testimony was not enough for one juror to convict Killen. She reportedly said she could never vote to send a preacher to jail, and the jury hung.

And that has lingered with many members of Neshoba County's black community since then.

"People just don't like Mr. Killen in the black community. They really feel like he was responsible for what happened here 40 years ago," said Leroy Clemons of the Neshoba County NAACP.

But not everyone in the black community completely agrees. James Chaney's brother Ben, said Killen is just a scapegoat, and all of the original living suspects should have been indicted. Chaney said he does believe Killen had something to do with the murders, but don't tell those who know him that.

"I didn't know anything about it, and I don't think he did, or I'd have heard about it. We're about as close as two brothers can be. If he was involved in something he would have told me," said Kenneth Killen.

"It's just not in his personality. I've never seen anything to indicate to me that Edgar Ray is a racist," said Henry.

Killen is still unable to put any weight on his legs after being injured in a tree cutting accident a couple of months ago. It is likely he will be in a wheelchair when the trial begins. Unless something unforeseen happens, that will be June 13.