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Gary Younge
Jury selection gets under way in Mississippi Burning murder trial

The defendant, 80-year-old Edgar Ray Killen, looked straight ahead and said nothing as he was taken by wheelchair into the red-brick courthouse in the main square of Philadelphia, Mississippi, where jury selection started yesterday morning.

The 1964 murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner as they went to register black voters in the segregated south during the Mississippi Freedom Summer, received intense national attention and was later made into the film Mississippi Burning.

Mr Killen is the first and only person to be charged with the murders although those familiar with the case say seven more men, who are still alive, were also involved.

The murders took place on June 21 1964 after the three young civil rights workers had gone to visit the site of a church burning when they were apprehended by the local sheriff ostensibly on a traffic violation. When they were released they were met by a gang of Klans men, allegedly led by Mr Killen. They were beaten and shot dead. Their bodies were found 44 days later, buried in an earthen dam.

Mr Killen was tried in 1967 on federal charges of violating civil rights along with 17 others. Seven were convicted but Mr Killen, who said he was at a wake at the time of the murders, was freed after a juror said she could not bring herself to convict a preacher and produced a hung jury.

James's younger brother, who has long sought justice in the case, was at the court yesterday. So was a man called Joseph Harper passing out business cards that identified him as the Imperial Wizard of the American White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan Inc.

After jury selection, opening arguments could begin tomorrow or Thursday and the trial is expected to last around two weeks. But picking a jury could be difficult, claims defence lawyer James McIntyre.

"Everybody in the world has known about this case through the news media, books and hearsay," he told the Associated Press. "There's no place on earth you can go where people haven't heard about this case."

The circuit court judge, Marcus Gordon, has been offered extra security for the trial but has turned it down. "I'm not sure I want that. I've always been a two-fisted kind of guy."

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