JACKSON, Miss. – Edgar Ray Killen, a 1960s Ku Klux Klan leader who was convicted decades later in the “Mississippi Burning” slayings of three civil rights workers, has died in prison at the age of 92, the state's corrections department announced Friday.
Killen was serving three consecutive 20-year terms for manslaughter when he died at 9 p.m. Thursday inside the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. No foul play was suspected, the statement said.
His conviction came 41 years to the day after James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, all in their 20s, were ambushed and killed by Klansmen on June 21, 1964.
The three Freedom Summer workers had been investigating the burning of a black church near Philadelphia, Mississippi. A deputy sheriff in Philadelphia had arrested them on a traffic charge, then released them after alerting a mob. Mississippi's then-governor claimed their disappearance was a hoax, and segregationist Sen. Jim Eastland told President Lyndon Johnson it was a “publicity stunt” before their bodies were dug up.
The slayings shocked the nation, helped spur passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and were dramatized in the 1988 movie “Mississippi Burning.” The movie title came from the name of the FBI investigation.
Killen, a part-time preacher and lumber mill operator, was 80 when a Neshoba County jury of nine white people and three black people convicted him of three counts of manslaughter on June 21, 2005, despite his assertions that he was innocent. Prosecutors said Killen masterminded the slayings, then went elsewhere so he would have an alibi.
Killen was the only person ever to face state murder charges, and even then, it was the lesser charge of manslaughter that put him in state prison.