PHILADELPHIA, Miss. – A jury panel of four blacks and 13 whites was sworn in Wednesday to hear the murder trial of Edgar Ray Killen (search) — a one-time Klansman charged with murdering three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964.
Prosecutors and the defense each made opening statements lasting about 15 minutes each. Attorney General Jim Hood also laid out a narrative of what happened in the month leading up to the slayings of Michael Schwerner (search), Andrew Goodman and James Chaney in rural Neshoba County.
Defense attorney Mitch Moran (search) acknowledged publicly for the first time that Killen was in the Ku Klux Klan at the time of the slaying.
"Mr. Killen has denied in his own way being involved in the Klan," Moran told the jury panel. "For the sake of this trial, we're going to assume he was in the Klan. The Klan's not on trial here. Being a member of the Klan is not on trial here."
Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon intentionally did not tell the jury panel which 12 of them will decide the case and which five will serve as alternates. He also ordered the attorneys not to disclose that information.
Testimony is to begin Thursday.
Earlier Wednesday, Gordon told those remaining in the jury pool that what is done in the trial will make history.
"What we do here will be forever recorded in the history of Neshoba County and you and I, when this case is over, should be proud of ourselves, should be proud of the work done here in this courtroom," he said.
The revived investigation and trial represents Mississippi's latest attempt to deal with unfinished business from violence that accompanied the civil rights movement decades ago.
In a measure of how much things have changed over the past 41 years, the jury pool contained whites, blacks and members of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, whose reservation is nearby. In 1964 when the victims were murdered, very few blacks were registered to vote in Neshoba County, and juries were usually all-white.
The nightrider killings of the three young men, who were helping register blacks during the "Freedom Summer" of 1964 and were investigating a church burning the night they disappeared, galvanized the civil rights movement and helped win passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The case was dramatized in the 1988 movie "Mississippi Burning."
District Attorney Mark Duncan, in remarks Wednesday to the jury pool members, referred to Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner by their family nicknames — for example he referred to Schwerner as "Mickey." He also reminded the group that each of the three murder counts should be considered separately.
The prosecutor noted that Chaney was from Meridian while the other two were from out of state.
"I've heard people say, `well they kind of got what they asked for. They were down here making trouble."'
He asked them if any member of the group felt that way. The question was met with silence.
Duncan also cautioned the group not to be swayed by Killen's age or the fact he was sitting in a wheelchair. Killen suffers from arthritis and is recovering from an accident in which he broke his legs.
Killen, who remains free on bond, was tried along with several others in 1967 on federal charges of violating the victims' civil rights. The all-white jury deadlocked in Killen's case, but seven others were convicted. A juror in that case was later quoted as saying she could not convict Killen because he was a preacher.
Duncan said the fact Killen preached should play no part in their decision.
"I think we are all sinners, aren't we? Some just worse than others," he said.
Earlier, Duncan said some members of the jury pool had felt there was no point of pursuing a state murder case 41 years after the fact, while others said they strongly favored the prosecution.
Gordon told the panel Wednesday: "This is not a case about race. This is not a case about position. It's a case about the laws of Neshoba County."
Defense attorneys say they'll ask the judge to block prosecutors from using parts of a transcript from the 1967 federal trial. Some of those who testified in that trial have died.
Gordon said he would consider the defense motion on Thursday.