JACKSON, Mississippi – A former Ku Klux Klansman convicted in the 1964 slayings of three civil rights workers has sued the FBI, claiming the government used a mafia hit man to pistol-whip and intimidate witnesses for information in the case.
Edgar Ray Killen, an 85-year-old former saw mill operator and one-time Baptist preacher, was convicted in 2005 of manslaughter based in part on testimony from a mistrial 40 years ago in Mississippi.
The lawsuit filed Wednesday in federal court seeks millions of dollars in damages and a declaration that Killen's rights were violated when the FBI allegedly used a gangster known as "The Grim Reaper" during its investigation.
"Money is secondary, we really just want the truth out," said Robert A. Ratliff of Mobile, Ala., who represents Killen. "What we're looking for is the complete, unredacted FBI file. Stand up and tell us what happened."
Killen has maintained his innocence in the killings. He is serving a 60-year sentence at a prison in central Mississippi.
Ratliff said one of the defense lawyers, the late Clayton Lewis, who represented Killen and several others in a 1967 federal trial was a paid FBI informant.
And, he said, known gangster and killer Gregory Scarpa Sr. was hired by the FBI allegedly for $30,000 to coerce witnesses to tell where the bodies were buried and who put them there.
The FBI has never acknowledged using Scarpa. FBI spokeswoman Deborah Madden had not seen the lawsuit and had no immediate comment.
Killen walked out of federal court in 1967 because the jury couldn't reach a verdict.
Some of the information and testimony from that trial was later used to convict him, when many witnesses were dead and he no longer had the chance to question his accusers, Ratliff said. Some of that testimony was based on information gathered by Lewis and Scarpa, he said.
Stories about Scarpa, who died in 1994, has been the stuff of gangland lore. But in 2007, Scarpa's mistress testified in an unrelated case involving an FBI agent.
Linda Schiro said she came to Mississippi with Scarpa and he once shoved a gun into a Klansman's mouth to get information for the FBI. Her entire testimony during that trial was later questioned, though, and an FBI agent accused of conspiring in a mob murder spree was cleared.
Still, after that trial, New York Supreme Court Justice Gustin Reichbach said he was troubled by Schiro's testimony and referenced the Mississippi Klansman story.
"That a thug like Scarpa would be employed by the federal government to beat witnesses and threaten them at gunpoint to obtain information ... is a shocking demonstration of the government's unacceptable willingness to employ criminality to fight crime," the judge said.
The lawsuit also claims Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, who helped prosecute Killen in 2005, was complacent in a "conspiracy of silence" for knowing about the FBI's alleged improper conduct.
"I get sued everyday or criticized for playing by the rules and doing my job," Hood said. "I'm getting used to the job. We've got 3,000 suits out there and this is just another one."
In 1964, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, two white men from New York, came to Mississippi as part of Freedom Summer and teamed up with James Chaney, a young black Mississippian, to help register black voters.
They were ambushed by members of the Klan in June and killed before being buried in an earthen dam. Their bodies were found weeks later after an intense search.
A desire for swift justice reached the highest levels of federal government, including then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who dispatched numerous agents to Mississippi.
The lawsuit claims the FBI brought in Scarpa, who found the burial site through "the use of intimidation of potential witnesses, pistol-whipping actual witnesses, and assaulting other local residents."
The lawsuit also names as a defendant John Doar, a federal prosecutor in 1967, and six unknown FBI agents. Doar is now in private practice and did not immediately respond to a message left at his New York office.
Killen claims in the lawsuit that Hood, Doar and the FBI conspired to "suppress, chill, and tortuously interfere with his constitutionally protected activities of free speech and freedom of association, all in defense of his society and culture, and otherwise injure him and abridge his civil rights."