PHILADELPHIA, Miss. – An 80-year-old former Ku Klux Klansman was taken from court on a stretcher and hospitalized with high blood pressure Thursday, the opening day of testimony at his murder trial in the 1964 killings of three civil rights workers.
Edgar Ray Killen (search) was taken away in an ambulance just before the widow of one of the victims led the jury through the events that sent her husband to Mississippi during the "Freedom Summer" (search) of 1964. A few in the courtroom wiped away tears during the testimony.
Rita Schwerner Bender (search), 63, recalled the moment she learned that authorities had found the blue station wagon that her husband, Michael Schwerner (search), and the two other men were in when they disappeared. The burned car was abandoned in a swamp.
"I think it hit me for the first time that they were dead, that there was really no realistic possibility that they were alive," the Seattle woman said, occasionally looking as though she was fighting back tears.
The trial later went into recess until at least Friday, depending on Killen's ability to attend.
The part-time preacher and sawmill operator has been attending court in a wheelchair while he recovers from broken legs suffered in a woodcutting accident. A nurse sits nearby in court.
Dr. Patrick Eakes, director of the intensive care unit at Neshoba County General hospital, described Killen as "alert and pleasant" but said he would remain there overnight. He said Killen arrived at the hospital with elevated blood pressure and complained of a headache and discomfort in his chest. Eakes said Killen would be examined early Friday to see if he could be released.
Killen is on trial in the killings of James Chaney, a black Mississippian, and Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, white New Yorkers, who were in the town to investigate the burning of a black church. They were stopped for speeding, jailed for a few hours, then released, after which they were ambushed by a gang of Klansmen.
Attorney General Jim Hood said prosecutors intend to prove that Killen planned the murders and helped round up Klansmen to chase down and kill the three.
They were then beaten and shot to death, and their bodies were found 44 days later buried in an earthen dam.
Rita and Michael Schwerner had been married just over a year and a half when they moved from New York to Mississippi in January 1964 to work in the civil rights movement. They lived in the homes of several black families in Meridian, moving frequently because the families were threatened.
Killen's name has been associated with the slayings from the outset, and he stood trial on federal charges in 1967, but the all-white jury could not reach a verdict. One juror reportedly said she could not convict a preacher.
Killen could get life in prison if convicted in the state trial.
The defense does not dispute that Killen was a member of the Klan at the time of the slayings, but denies he had anything to do with the attack.