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In recent weeks, two criminal defendants, both in the Deep South, have faced the extraordinary prospect of being tried for brutal murders allegedly committed more than 40 years ago. On Jan. 15, Louisiana prison journalist Wilbert Rideau-tried for the fourth time for the 1961 killing of Julia Ferguson, a bank teller, in Lake Charles, La.-was released from prison, for time served, after a jury reached a guilty verdict on the surprising charge of manslaughter, rather than on the more serious charge of murder. A week earlier, Edgar Ray Killen was arrested at his home in Philadelphia, Miss., on charges that he orchestrated the 1964 killing of three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. His trial is set to begin on March 28. Although the time frame of the two cases is similar, the circumstances of each could not differ more. In diametrically opposed ways, each case presents a profound test of the notion that justice delayed is justice denied. The facts of the two cases are well known: Wilbert Rideau, then a 19-year-old porter at a fabric shop in Lake Charles, walked into a bank, robbed it of $14,000, took three hostages, shot each of them and then brutally stabbed Julia Ferguson to death. He subsequently confessed to his crimes, and was sentenced to die at Louisiana’s Angola State Prison. His convictions were twice thrown out on procedural grounds and he was twice retried and reconvicted. In 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Louisiana’s death penalty statute, Rideau’s sentence was commuted to life in prison. Five years ago, his conviction was again thrown out on appeal, this time when the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that African-American jurors had been systematically excluded from serving on the grand jury that indicted Rideau, who is black, for the murder of Ferguson, a white woman. Edgar Killen, in 1964 a 38-year-old Baptist minister and reputed Ku Klux Klansman, is alleged to have been the point man in the conspiracy responsible for the murders later dramatized in the film Mississippi Burning. For many years, the state of Mississippi refused to prosecute or even conduct a serious investigation of the case. In 1967, the federal government brought civil rights charges against 18 defendants alleged to have been involved in the conspiracy. In an apparent compromise verdict, seven defendants were convicted, and eight were acquitted. Killen, along with two other defendants, received a hung jury (11 jurors voted for his conviction; there was only one holdout). Killen was never retried. It was not until 1999 that Mississippi state officials reopened their investigation of the case, and not until Jan. 6 of this year that a state grand jury decided that there was enough evidence against Killen to justify his prosecution for murder. Where the similarities end Prosecuting any defendant for a killing that occurred more than 40 years ago is bound to present difficulties: Both cases have entailed the problem of dead witnesses, fading memories and defendants who have aged almost beyond recognition. Yet it is there that the similarities end. Rideau, now 63, spent some 43 years in jail, transforming himself from a virtually illiterate eighth-grade dropout into one of the nation’s leading advocates for prison reform, the award-winning editor of Angola State Prison’s celebrated Angolite magazine, and co-director of the critically acclaimed film The Farm. Perhaps most importantly, Rideau, whom Life magazine once called “the most rehabilitated prisoner in America,” accepted responsibility for his crime and acknowledged the hurt it has caused. Every other murderer convicted in Louisiana during the decade of the 1960s had long since been released or died in prison. Although the State Pardon Board four times recommended that Rideau be granted clemency, no Louisiana governor was ever willing to follow through on its recommendation. Thankfully, a Louisiana jury has given Rideau the justice that state officials long denied him. Although the facts in the case would easily have supported a conviction for murder, the jury apparently decided that Rideau’s time in prison had been long enough. Employing a subtle form of nullification, the jury convicted Rideau on the lesser, only awkwardly fitting, charge of heat-of-passion manslaughter, thereby ensuring that, finally, he could go free. The question now is whether a different sort of justice will be reached in the case of Killen. In striking contrast to Rideau, Killen, now 79, has lived his life a free man, continuing to preach at churches throughout Neshoba County, eluding prosecution for a vicious murder conspiracy that the evidence strongly suggests he helped lead, and never acknowledging his guilt. When asked whether he had changed his beliefs as did former Alabama Governor George Wallace, Killen responded, “I sure will never do that.” Wallace renounced his racist beliefs in the late 1970s. That Mississippi officials have finally seen fit to prosecute Killen after all these years raises the hope that despite the problems such a belated trial inevitably presents, retribution for the murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner can finally be achieved. Whether the jury will do its part remains to be seen. Stuart P. Green is a professor of law, and director of the Pugh Institute for Justice, at Louisiana State University.

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