PHILADELPHIA, Miss. – Former Ku Klux Klansman Edgar Ray Killen (search) was wheeled before a judge Thursday, an 80-year-old vestige of Mississippi's hate-filled past, and sentenced to 60 years in prison for the 1964 slayings of three civil rights workers.
Killen sat in his wheelchair in a bright yellow jail uniform and stared straight ahead, stone-faced, offering no remorse and no explanations, as Judge Marcus Gordon gave him the maximum and closed one of the most shocking chapters in the movement to end segregation across the South.
"Each life has value. Each life is equally as valuable as the other life and I have taken that into consideration," the judge said. "The three lives should absolutely be respected and treated equally."
In imposing the prison term, Gordon noted that some people "would say a sentence of 10 years would be a life sentence."
The judge asked Killen if he had anything to say.
"None, your honor," he said.
The Baptist preacher and sawmill operator was convicted of manslaughter Tuesday, exactly 41 years after the three civil rights volunteers were killed while working in Mississippi to register blacks to vote.
The victims — black Mississippian James Chaney (search) and white New Yorkers Michael Schwerner (search) and Andrew Goodman (search) — were beaten and shot by a gang of Klansmen, and their bodies were found 44 days later buried in a red-clay dam. Witnesses said Killen rounded up carloads of Klansmen to intercept the three men and helped arrange for a bulldozer to bury the bodies.
The killings made headlines across the country, exposed the depth of Southern resistance to integration, and helped speed passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964; the case was dramatized in the 1988 movie "Mississippi Burning."
On Thursday, Killen wore a big gap-toothed grin as he was brought into court in the wheelchair he has used since he broke his legs in a logging accident in March. He was not breathing through an oxygen tube, the way he was when the verdict was read.
During the sentencing, more than 25 armed law-enforcement officers stood against the walls of the 200-seat, oak-paneled courtroom, with Killen's relatives on one side of the aisle and the victims' families on the other.
Schwerner's widow, Rita Schwerner Bender, blinked and nodded slightly as Gordon announced each sentence. She leaned on her husband, Bill Bender, and he firmly squeezed her hand.
"I want to thank God that today we saw Preacher Killen in a prison uniform taken from the courthouse to the jailhouse," said Chaney's younger brother, Ben Chaney.
Killen's wife, Betty Jo, pushed past security to give her husband three kisses before he was wheeled from the courtroom with a wall of law officers around him. Defense attorney James McIntyre said Killen's last words as he was wheeled away were: "I'll see you."
Killen will be taken to a state prison outside Jackson, where he will be held in solitary, Attorney General Jim Hood said. He said Killen must serve at least one-third of his sentence — 20 years — before becoming eligible for parole.
Hood said Killen has expressed no remorse.
"I know at some point he'll get to that realization, you don't get to heaven unless you admit what you've done and ask for forgiveness," Hood said.
Killen was tried in 1967 on federal charges of violating the victims' civil rights. But the all-white jury deadlocked, with one juror saying she could not convict a preacher. Seven others were convicted, but none served more than six years.
Killen is the only person to be brought up on state murder charges in the case. But the jury of nine whites and three blacks convicted him on the lesser charge of manslaughter.
The judge sentenced him to 20 years on each count and said the terms will run consecutively.
Killen's lawyer said he will argue on appeal that the jury should not have been allowed to consider manslaughter. The judge will hear a request for a new trial on Monday.