Why Mississippi failed to convict for 'Mississippi Burning' murders

Mississippi has closed an investigation into the 1964 murders of three civil rights volunteers by a group of KKK members, after failing to find sufficient admissible evidence to support charges against any surviving suspects.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood announced Monday that the investigation into the murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi is finally closed, 53 years almost to the day after the young men were killed by a mob during "Freedom Summer."

The state of Mississippi is closing an investigation into the 1964 murders of the three civil rights volunteers by a group of KKK members, unable to find sufficient evidence to prosecute any surviving people for their involvement. 

Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney had traveled to Neshoba County, Miss., to register black voters when they were killed by a mob. Three federal investigations over the decades failed to lead to a murder conviction, as the Los Angeles Times reported. 

The Department of Justice released a report Monday that listed the names of five people believed to be involved in the killings who were still alive in 2010, when the case was re-opened for a third time. Two died soon after the start of the investigation; one, Edgar Killen, is in prison after being convicted of manslaughter in 2005 for organizing the lynch mob; and two others who are believed to have not been at the scene but were still involved are "still potentially culpable for state offenses related to the murders." 

But as The New York Times reported, the deaths of many original witnesses and sources, the lack of admissibility in court of key testimony, and the faulty memories of and reluctance to speak with authorities of some of the elderly men prevented further charges. 

Jim Hood, the state's attorney general, said at a news conference that investigators had done "everything possible under the law" to find those responsible, The New York Times reported.  

"However, we have determined that there is no likelihood of any additional convictions," he said. "Absent any new information presented to the F.B.I. or my office, this case will be closed."

Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney were "Freedom Summer" volunteers, helping register black voters in Mississippi and setting up Freedom Schools, alternative schools for black southerners, as the L.A. Times reports. They were arrested on June 21 on speeding charges. After their release from prison, the arresting officer helped two cars of Klansmen find the volunteers and kill them. 

Nineteen people were suspected of being involved, the L.A. Times reported. But local authorities, at least one of whom was involved in the murders, did not charge anyone, instead protecting them. Although eight men were convicted in 1967 of federal charges of violating the victim's civil rights, none served more than six years in prison.  

In 2005, new evidence led to the conviction of Mr. Killen, who was found guilty of three charges of manslaughter for recruiting the lynch mob, the L.A. Times reported. At the age of 81, he was sentenced to 60 years in prison.

The more recent investigations started after the passage of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act in 2008, which established an office in the DOJ to investigate unsolved civil rights era murders, The New York Times reported.

Under the law, 113 pre-1970 cold cases in racially motivated murders saw increased attention from the FBI. However, 105 of the cases have been closed with "very few" prosecutions, the L.A. Times reports. 

Despite the intensity of the investigation, Vanita Gupta, who leads the Justice Department's civil rights division, said in a statement "the passage of time has simply rendered additional prosecutions impossible."

Andrew Goodman, the brother of victim David Goodman, told the L.A. Times he wasn't surprised by the development but the closure of the case was an opportunity to reflect on racism in modern-day America.   

"My brother wasn't murdered because he was white or because he was an activist. He was murdered because, to the people that murdered him, black lives didn't matter. To a lot of people, they still don't matter," he said. The case is "an opportunity for us to recognize history in the context of the present moment. Nothing is closed about racism in America."

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