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“Never Too Late: A Prosecutor’s Story of Justice in the Medgar Evers Case” by Bobby DeLaughter (Scribner; 295 pages; $27) Prosecuting the white supremacist who assassinated civil rights leader Medgar Evers was nearly impossible three decades after the crime. In forensic terms, the case barely existed anymore and had to be recreated almost from scratch. After two hung juries in 1964, the district attorney’s office in Hinds County, Miss., had put the case aside pending the discovery of new proof against defendant Byron De La Beckwith, who died this month at the age of 80. And there it sat, with a succession of D.A.’s letting the evidence disappear while doing nothing to strengthen the case. Physical evidence and files — even the trial transcripts — were lost. Once the decision was made to revive the case and the D.A.’s investigators were piecing together the record, searches for the original witnesses often led to the cemetery. Politically, a retrial was just as daunting. Evers was the most significant martyr in America’s twentieth-century civil rights movement until the 1968 murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. But unlike his fellow black leader King, Evers faded to obscurity in the decades following his death. By 1989, when Jerry Mitchell’s reporting in The Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Miss.) revived interest in the case, the shock of Evers’ murder had long since faded. Popular sentiment in Mississippi — at least among whites — favored leaving the aging Beckwith on his Tennessee mountaintop to stew in his incoherent racist ravings. It took courage and great legal skill to overcome these obstacles. Prosecutor Bobby DeLaughter did it and won in 1994, forcing Beckwith to trade the mountaintop for a life sentence. The case inspired other “new South” prosecutors to re-examine nearly two dozen old race crimes, some just as infamous as the Evers murder. Among them: the “Mississippi Burning” murders of civil rights workers Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney; the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four Sunday school students; and the murder of the NAACP’s Vernon Dahmer. The Beckwith case is already well documented. In addition to heavy magazine and newspaper coverage, there was Maryanne Vollers’ “Ghosts of Mississippi” in 1995, a solid journalistic account of the trials and key characters. The Rob Reiner movie of the same name in 1996 romanticized DeLaughter’s story, as he evolved from good old boy to sensitized champion of race relations (with an overly earnest Alec Baldwin in the lead role). So what is still worth saying about the case, nearly seven years after the verdict? DeLaughter’s late-arriving memoir, ironically titled “Never Too Late,” could have enriched civil rights history with insider details of how the Beckwith case was assembled and won. That story would have been all the more compelling with insight into DeLaughter’s personal journey to enlightenment. But that’s not what DeLaughter wrote. Instead, he fails, both stylistically and substantively. His wooden writing strips the story of its natural drama, and he manages unintentionally to prove a case for continued suspicion about white Southern attitudes and the quality of justice that they yield. In 1963, DeLaughter writes, “a back-shooting coward had inflicted a terrible wrong. It was a wrong dealt to the Evers family, to be sure, but it was more than that. Mississippi’s honor and reputation had been smeared by the assassin’s bullet as well.” That becomes DeLaughter’s true mission — redemption for Mississippi, erasing what he apparently sees as an unfair “smear” of his well-meaning law enforcement forebears. In the process, he buries or minimizes the real horrors of Jim Crow Mississippi and the complicity of the state’s legal apparatus. Evers gave his life to combat that corruption. Years of threats and intimidation came to their logical conclusion as he lay bleeding to death in his family’s arms, outside his home in Jackson. It’s no wonder the newly widowed Myrlie Evers screamed in anguish and hate at every white man in sight. As the first NAACP field secretary in Mississippi, Medgar Evers had made himself — in Beckwith’s twisted words — “Mississippi’s mightiest nigger,” daring to advocate voting rights and desegregation in defiance of a totalitarian regime. That system predictably failed Evers when it came time to punish his killer, and then it fell into a slumber that lasted far too long. But to DeLaughter, this is a much simpler tale of one lone nut’s crime and one family’s pain. Beckwith is portrayed as beyond the lunatic fringe, and the cops and prosecutors of that era as dedicated professionals whose quest for justice was simply brought up short by a lack of evidence. DeLaughter uses his memoir to prove Beckwith’s already proven guilt — and to acquit those involved in the prosecution efforts of the past. Spending very little time dissecting the original investigation and prosecution, DeLaughter at least accomplishes his first goal, meticulously documenting the accumulation of evidence and explaining such critical legal challenges as overcoming a speedy-trial claim. In a few places, the narrative even loosens up enough to give a peek inside the prosecution’s strategy. Once, for example, DeLaughter’s devout Christian temperament crumbles during a confrontation with a prison informant. When the witness’ attempts to cut a deal start sounding like extortion, DeLaughter denounces him as a “piece of shit” and calls off his testimony — a bold step that DeLaughter was able to take because he had just found another witness to prove the same point. Such colorful scenes are rare. More often, his lawyerly approach to voir dire and ballistics evidence become tedious; at times the pace is too much like that of a real trial. The book also divorces a landmark case from its proper context. What about the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, created to keep blacks in their place? This state spy agency actively subverted another arm of the government, the Hinds County D.A., by helping Beckwith’s defense in an operation that now smells a lot like jury tampering. DeLaughter couldn’t prove the jury was tampered with — fair enough — but then he proceeds to ignore the Sovereignty Commission’s actions and what they might say about the rule of law in that time and place. The original D.A., Bill Waller (who later served as governor), is depicted as a true justice-seeker who made the wise strategic move to drop the case after the 1964 mistrials. A few questions, however, go unasked: Did Waller’s constituents do any more than shrug when Beckwith strutted to freedom? Isn’t it curious that Beckwith’s subsequent confessions — in boasts to his fellow Klansmen — remained hidden until the 1990s, given that this new evidence existed by the late 1960s? DeLaughter doesn’t say. And what about DeLaughter’s boss, Hinds County district attorney Ed Peters, who spent his first 17 years in office averting his eyes from Beckwith and ignoring calls for his retrial? To all these questions, DeLaughter applies a light gloss, pretending that the untidy past is, well, past. All will be forgiven, he hopes, when a true son of Mississippi finally steps up and does the right thing by punishing the killer. This redemption is sprinkled with DeLaughter’s platitudes about how unfortunate it was that Mississippi’s leaders and legal system couldn’t have done a little better in the bad old days. DeLaughter makes plain the reasons he and his office were initially reluctant to revive the Beckwith case, and here’s where we begin to see why his book’s message ultimately sounds so hollow. He worried about white backlash for uncovering repressed memories. He worried even more about harming Mississippi’s image should the prosecution strike out for a third time. He even had to worry about his own family’s reputation: His father-in-law, in 1964 a prominent judge and member of the Citizens’ Council (which Evers and others rightly branded the “uptown Klan”), had taken possession of the murder weapon. After he died, DeLaughter found it in his home. By then, DeLaughter’s marriage to the judge’s daughter — deliciously named Dixie — had crumbled, in part because of her shame at being married to the man who was summoning all these ghosts from the early 1960s. All of this — and the fact that DeLaughter is now a judge, dependent on the voters’ good graces — weighs upon the author as he tries to tell the story. The result is a tone reminiscent of Evers’ time. “I love Mississippi,” DeLaughter writes. “My roots run deep here, and I have never planned on living anywhere else … . I want it to be a place that does not need to be under the watchful eye of Uncle Sam, because we can be trusted to do the right thing and tend to our own house.” By remaining in this defensive crouch throughout much of his book, DeLaughter is too busy heralding the transformation of his state to honestly examine what exactly needed changing. History, and DeLaughter’s own place in it, would have been better served if he had put aside these fears in “Never Too Late” and told the story candidly in its proper context — told about the lawlessness, hate, and repression that bred Evers’ murder and left his killer unpunished for a generation. DeLaughter deserves credit for finally achieving justice, not personal blame for the past. But the resolution was too late, and that demands an explanation. NEW TITLES IN BRIEF “In the Interests of Justice: Reforming the Legal Profession” by Deborah L. Rhode (Oxford University Press, $27.50) Stanford law professor Deborah Rhode provides a systematic study of the practices that make our legal profession so widely mistrusted and criticized from within and outside the bar. “Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy” by Mary Dudziak (Princeton University Press, $29.95) In this groundbreaking book, Mary Dudziak, a law professor at the University of Southern California, exposes the complex relationship between domestic agitation for equal rights and America’s international fight against Communism. “Protect and Defend” by Richard North Patterson (Knopf, $26.95) In Patterson’s new novel of politics and law, the controversial nomination of a female chief justice is threatened by a highly charged abortion trial.

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