JACKSON, Miss. – A black man says Edgar Ray Killen, a reputed Ku Klux Klan behind bars for the 1960s deaths of three civil rights workers in Mississippi, gave him power of attorney and land rights when they were both in prison together.
But Killen's lawyer said the former inmate, James Stern, had no right to the property and Killen denies signing anything over to the man.
Stern said at a news conference Thursday that Killen had given him power of attorney while they were in prison and he has taken control of 40 acres of Killen's land.
Stern said he transferred the land last month to a nonprofit called Racial Reconciliation, which he controls, and would donate one acre to be used as a memorial site to the three civil rights workers.
A government clerk's office confirmed the land had been transferred.
Killen is serving 60 years for manslaughter in the 1964 deaths of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, civil rights workers who were registering black voters when they were abducted and killed in what became known as the "Mississippi Burning" case.
Killen's lawyer, Robert Ratliff, said Thursday that his client denies signing away his rights to Stern. Ratliff said he'll defend Killen's property rights because his client is 87 years old and has a traumatic brain injury, and people he meets in prison try to take advantage of him.
Stern said in a news release this week that Killen "unexpectedly signed over the deed to his 40-acre property." It's a statement he repeated at Thursday's news conference in Jackson. But a copy of the deed provided by Stern shows Stern used power of attorney to transfer the land on May 17 from Killen to the nonprofit.
Stern said he hasn't seen Killen since being released from prison last year.
Stern said he and Killen were cellmates from August 2010 to November 2011 at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. Mississippi Department of Corrections spokeswoman Tara Booth said Thursday that Stern and Killen were in individual cells, but they were close to one another.
The Mississippi Department of Corrections said Stern was sentenced to 15 years in 2007 on five counts of wire fraud and was paroled in November 2011.
Stern, who has described himself as an ordained minister, said Thursday that he also owns book and movie rights to the life stories of Killen and Killen's wife. He showed reporters a contract that he says Killen's wife signed giving him full rights to her movie, book and merchandise rights.
Ratliff insists that "Mr. and Mrs. Killen both deny signing over any of these rights to him."
Stern also claims he has letters from Killen but hasn't made those public, say they are the subject of book and movie deals in the works.
Asked why a man reputed to be a Klan leader would give a black man power of attorney, Stern said he was Killen's confidant and protector in prison when Killen was singled out by other inmates for abuse.
"When they were putting feces in his food, I was the one giving him my tray," Stern said.
For his part, Stern said he was courteous and listened to Killen because he thought that may be the only way the world would find out the truth about Mississippi during the civil rights struggle.
Killen, a former sawmill operator and one-time Baptist preacher, was convicted in 2005 on three counts of manslaughter. Killen has maintained his innocence.
In 1964, Schwerner and Goodman, two white men from New York, came to Mississippi as part of Freedom Summer and teamed up with Chaney, a young black Mississippian, to help register black voters. They were ambushed by members of the Klan in June of that year and killed before being buried in an earthen dam. Their bodies were found weeks later after an intense search.