Monday, June 13, 2005

Geriatric Justice

This morning, the so-called "Mississippi Burning" murder trial of Edgar Ray Killen, now 80, for the murder of three civil rights activists, (from left to right in the photo below), Michael Schwerner, 24, Andrew Goodman, 20, and James Chaney, 21, in 1964, during the Freedom Summer movement, began. This story particularly hits home for me because Michael Schwerner was a Cornell University alumnus, (Class of 1961) and a portrait of him, Goodman and Chaney is set in the Sage Chapel stained glass windows. I remember as a freshman or sophomore, not knowing about the "Mississippi Burning" case and having electroman explain it all to me, and then being struck by how young all three of the civil rights activists looked. It was very moving moment for me, to witness how hatred could be so unforgiving and cruel. (Yes, I know, it's very pre-encounter of me to say this). In the sumer of '64, Schwerner and Goodman were sent to Mississippi to help register black voters in the Deep South. While driving late on the night of June 21, 1964, they were stopped for speeding, arrested and spent several hours in jail. During that time, it seems the local KKK were notified and when the three civil rights activists were released, they quickly found they were being followed by two cars filled with KKK members. The activists were forced off the road where they were shot at close range. A bulldozer was used to bury their bodies under 15ft of soil, and authorities didn't find them until 44 days later. At the time, no one was charged with murder. Killen and 17 others were charged with conspiracy to violate the three victims' civil rights, and only seven were convicted, serving prison terms less than six years each. This past January, Killen was arrested for the murder and jury selection has begun. And yet, during this trial and the murder investigation of Emmett Till, questions have been raised regarding the age of the defendants and the suspects. Some wonder what the point is of stringing along an 80 year old man through a high-profile murder case. He's old, they say, he's weak, he couldn't possibly be strong enough to serve a prison term. I say, so what? Justice is about proper retribution for a crime -- it's as much about victim's rights as it is about rehabilitation. Sure, there's little to no chance that Killen, at age 80, is going to mend his ways past how he or his life may have changed since 1964, but that doesn't mean that he didn't allegedly commit a crime back then. If he is indeed the man who lead the charge against Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney, then his age now should not matter when it comes to finding justice for the victims. If the courts were to show lenience to Killen in deference to his age, they're basically saying, "if you got away with it for this long, you might as well get away with it for the rest of your life". Killen showed no respect for allowing Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney to live to the ripe old age of 80, or even to the ripe old age of 25 for that matter; if he is guilty, why should the legal system show respect for his age?


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