Once again, Lenny Bruce’s line “in the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls” is proven right. On August 13, 2005 a judge in Mississippi granted bail to Edgar Ray Killen, the Klansman convicted less than six weeks ago for the murders of three civil rights workers way back in 1964. What this means is that not only did this man get away with murder for forty years when he and his accomplices were acquitted by a jury of racist Mississippians back in the 1960s, but that he will most likely die a free man after serving barely six weeks for his actions. According to the prosecution, Killen was not present at the murders, but he was the one who planned the deaths and the disposal of the bodies.
When he allowed bail to Mr. Killen, the judge in the case said that he had no choice, since it would be difficult to consider the murderer a flight risk or a danger to the community-two factors that the court must always weigh when granting bail. Rita Schwerner, the widow of one of the men killed forty-one summers ago, decried the decision and made the point that by allowing Killen out of prison, the judge was sending a message to racists that they can once again get away with murder. Others denounced the decision in even stronger terms, with one woman from the community saying the judge had “set the county back 41 years.” (NYTimes 8/14/2005)
Given the nature of law and its technicalities, it is possible to understand the judge’s reasoning. After all, Killen is an old man and it is unlikely that he would flee the state since he needs physical care. Of course, this line of reasoning ignores the very real fact that this man escaped prosecution for forty years and lived a normal life-something his victims never had the chance to do. Furthermore, it ignores the history of the crime and the struggle it took to even get Mr. Killen in the docket, which is a crime in itself. When the trial finally did begin this past summer, it was delayed by a bomb threat most believe came from Killen’s supporters. Supporters who could spirit him away if he desired to leave. Either way, his lawyers will keep him out of prison just by sheer legal maneuvering.
Judge Gordon’s decision is somewhat surprising, especially in light of his comments after Killen’s conviction, where he instantly denied the defense’s request for a new trial telling them that their request had absolutely no merit. This was after Killen was convicted of three counts of manslaughter and sentenced by the judge to the maximum of twenty years on each count. The original charge was first degree murder, but Killen was not convicted of that. If he had been, he would not have been eligible for bail. According to a local newspaper editor, the prosecution was partially responsible for this in part because they did not present a strong case that Killen’s motives were based on hate and that he continues to hold those views.
Indeed, after his conviction on manslaughter charges, various white racist websites and organizations began raising money for Killen’s appeal. One of them, www.nationalist.org, has an article portraying Judge Gordon as a communist and “radical integrationist” who had denied Killen’s right to a fair trial. Their argument, which was also used by the defense attorneys to get Killen out on bail while he awaits an appeal, is that Killen was denied his right to a speedy trial and that the state has ignored legal provisions that forbid “reexamination” of any fact previously tried by a jury. Killen’s original defense was that he organized the murders of Cheney, Schwerner, and Goodman in self-defense
The legal technicalities present here, while important on a certain level, when added to the other circumstances in this case, only prove that the law is here to maintain a system based on class and race. While Killen sits at home with family and friends, thousands of others are in prison for marijuana possession. They are not allowed bail because they can’t afford lawyers and they are sentenced under laws that require mandatory minimums. In addition, thousands of men and women languish in detention centers around the country merely for committing the crime of coming to the United States without the right papers-papers they can not obtain because the US government won’t provide them.
While these undocumented folks sit in these detention centers, Killen’s compatriots in hate are organizing themselves into militias along the southern borders of the United States with the intention of solving what they call the immigration problem. The best known of these militias are the Minutemen, whose members echo the words of the KKK: “It should be legal to kill illegals,” said Carl, a 69-year old retired Special Forces veteran who fought in Vietnam and now lives out West. “Just shoot ’em on sight. That’s my immigration policy recommendation. You break into my country, you die.” And another: “I agree completely,” Michael said. “You get up there with a rifle and start shooting four or five of them a week, the other four or five thousand behind them are going to think twice about crossing that line.” (SPLC Intelligence Report, Arizona Showdown: High-powered firearms, militia maneuvers and racism at the Minuteman Project)
This group not only garners support from citizens around the US, it has also received what can only be considered praise from various rightwing politicians including California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Senator Wayne Allard of Colorado. In addition, Rep. John Culberson, (R-Houston), and 47 Republican co-sponsors from around the country introduced a bill in Congress on July 28, 2005 that would essentially legalize the Minutemen and groups like them, turning them into federally recognized border militias (HR 3622).
Meanwhile, this same Congress is gearing up for a battle over certain provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that are set to expire by 2007. One of the provisions requires balloting materials to be available in the native language for those voters who don’t use English as their first language.
Another is one that requires certain states to get federal approval for any changes they make in their voting laws. This provision is supposed to insure that the proposed change does not have a retrogressive purpose that would be used to prevent certain citizens from voting. It is important to note that the last time the Voting Rights Act was up for renewal was in 1985 and several right wing legislators voted against it. In other words, the renewal is not a sure thing. Indeed, the fact that Mr. Killen is once again a free man shows the underlying reality of the system of laws we live with in the United States. After all, it was the murders that he planned that shocked LBJ’s conscience into supporting the original act back in 1965.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: email@example.com