Case closed in ‘Mississippi Burning’ murders after 52 years

On the day before the 52nd anniversary of the ‘Mississippi Burning’ murders, the state and federal governments announced the case is closed on the killing of three civil rights workers. The investigation could be reopened if new information is found.

“The FBI, my office and other law enforcement agencies have spent decades chasing leads, searching for evidence and fighting for justice for the three young men who were senselessly murdered on June 21, 1964,” Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said during a press conference Monday.

Andrew Goodman, Michael ‘Mickey’ Schwerner and James Earl Chaney headed to Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964 to register African-American voters. On June 21, they disappeared after they had gone to Neshoba County to investigate the burning of a black church. Three days later, their car was found. Their bodies were discovered 44 days later in an earthen dam.

The three men had been chased in their car, abducted, and shot at close range by members of the Ku Klux Klan, the Neshoba County Sheriff's Office and the Philadelphia (Mississippi) Police Department.

Nine people were eventually prosecuted for crimes committed against the trio. In 1967, James Edward Jordan pleaded guilty and seven men ‒ Cecil Ray Price, Alton Wayne Roberts, Horace Doyle ‘H.D.’ Barnette, Billy Wayne Posey, Jimmy Arledge, Jimmy Snowden and Sam Holloway Bowers ‒ were convicted of federal conspiracy charges. Nearly a dozen others went free after those trials. In 2005, on the anniversary of the killings, Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of state manslaughter charges and sentenced to 60 years in prison.

The most recent development in the case occurred 18 months ago, Hood said, when a witness was set to sign a “sworn statement that would have implicated a suspect,” but backed out at the last minute.

Part of the problem with securing any more potential convictions are the ages of those involved, and the likelihood of those still alive dying before a trial were to wrap up, the Justice Department said in a 48-page report on the case.

“With the passage of fifty years, few persons with any direct knowledge of the facts relevant to the June 21, 1964 murders remain alive. Most of the original cooperators and confidential sources are deceased. Many of these elderly witnesses have understandably imperfect recollections. Other witnesses are reluctant to provide information,” the report said. “These realities impacted the results of our investigation and current prospects of uncovering any further information useful for prosecutive purposes.”

Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of manslaughter in 2005 for the 1964 'Mississippi Burning' murders © Landall Kyle Carter

Judge Marcus D. Gordon, who presided over Killen’s 2005 case, died three weeks ago, the New York Times reported. Only two living men remain ‒ other than the 91-year-old Killen ‒ whom officials considered bringing cases against: James ‘Pete’ Harris and Jimmy Lee Townsend. Harris was acquitted in the 1967 trial, while Townsend was charged, but never indicted. There was not enough evidence to pursue cases against them, Hood said.

Harris is accused of making phone calls to gather Klansmen to beat and kill the three civil rights workers, while Townsend is believed to have been in one of the cars involved in the high-speed chase.

"For these participants the good Lord will have to deal with that," Hood said.

Beyond Harris and Townsend, however, “there are no individuals living now that we can make a case against,” the Mississippi attorney general added. “That’s not to say if new information comes forward we won’t investigate.”

“It has been a thorough and complete investigation,” he continued. “I am convinced that during the last 52 years, investigators have done everything possible under the law to find those responsible and hold them accountable; however, we have determined that there is no likelihood of any additional convictions. Absent any new information presented to the FBI or my office, this case will be closed.”

Hood said that he informed the victims’ relatives of the decision to close the case. Rita Bender, Schwerner's widow, wasn’t surprised.

"Tragically for the people of Mississippi, and for our nation, the many murders which took place over so many years, in which people of color were targeted, and those who attempted to support them became the victims of brutality as well, all deprived of basic civil rights of citizens," she told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.

Closing the case closes a significant chapter in Mississippi's history, Hood said.

“Our state and our entire nation are a much better place because of the work of those three young men and others in 1964 who only wanted to ensure that the rights and freedoms promised in our Constitution were afforded to every single one of us in Mississippi," he said.

President Barack Obama posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the families of the three men in 2014, saying that Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner "refused to sit on the sidelines," and that their murders "shook the conscience of the nation."

The events helped lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and also served as the basis for the fictional 1988 movie ‘Mississippi Burning’ starring Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe.