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During the heat of the civil rights movement, three young activists were shot to death and their bodies plowed into an earthen dam outside the central Mississippi town of Philadelphia. It was June 21, 1964, the start of the “Freedom Summer,” and hundreds of volunteers were scouring the state registering blacks to vote. The slayings of the three young activists, whose bodies were found 44 days later, focused the national spotlight on Mississippi and swelled support for the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In 1967, eight men were convicted in federal court of violating the slain men’s civil rights, but no one was charged with their deaths. It’s been 37 years, and still no murder indictments have been issued in the deaths of James Earl Chaney, 21, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24. Suspects and potential witnesses have died. Memories are fading. Younger generations have learned about the killings through the 1988 movie “Mississippi Burning,” a fictional story based on the slayings that also renewed interest in prosecuting the men’s killers for murder. “We didn’t start off in the best of shape because the people who knew the facts, who testified in the federal trial in the ’60s, were all dead,” Neshoba County’s longtime district attorney, Ken Turner, said from his office just off Philadelphia’s main street. “I’m still hopeful, but in all candor, I’m not as optimistic as I was,” he said. “That’s not a signal of giving up. It’s just being honest with you.” Investigators have interviewed hundreds of people and sifted through more than 40,000 pages of documents and transcripts. But one of the keys of successfully prosecuting the case will be finding witnesses still living to supplement testimony from those who testified in the 1967 federal conspiracy trial but have since died, Turner said. Last month, Cecil Price, a former deputy sheriff convicted in the federal trial, died. State Attorney General Mike Moore wouldn’t say what role Price would have had in the prosecution, but he said Price’s death “hurt a whole lot.” “This is a case we ought to try if we can,” Moore says. “The ‘if’ is a big ‘if.’ We’re not going to do it if we don’t have a solid case.” Turner said, “As a practical matter, we couldn’t see asking a jury 35 or 36 years later to convict somebody just on transcript testimony.” Both men say the investigation is continuing, just not as quickly as other recent prosecutions of civil rights era slayings in the Deep South. The most publicized of those trials was the 1994 conviction of Byron de la Beckwith in the 1963 assassination of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers in Jackson. Beckwith died in prison in January at the age of 80. In May, jurors in Alabama convicted former Klansman Thomas Blanton Jr. in the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four black girls. He was sentenced to life in prison. In the case of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner, a local sheriff, a deputy and an imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan were among the eight convicted of federal conspiracy to violate their civil rights. They served prison terms, ranging from three to 10 years. Chaney’s brother, Ben Chaney, has said he doubts the murder case will ever make it to a grand jury and that prosecutors may just wait until all the suspects have died so they don’t have to press the case. In an interview shortly after Blanton’s conviction, Chaney, a paralegal who heads the James Earl Chaney Foundation — a New York civil rights group — said ”there’s a noose hanging around the neck of Mississippi with a big ball and chain.” “Until this case is vigorously prosecuted, I think the ball and chain will continue to pull the neck of the state down, hold Mississippi back,” Chaney said. Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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