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Supreme Court upholds Beckwith conviction in Medgar Evers’ murder

December 23, 1997 GMT

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) _ The Mississippi Supreme Court on Monday upheld the conviction of white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith in the 1963 assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, saying he got a fair trial despite the 31 years that elapsed between the crime and the verdict.

``Miscreants brought before the bar of justice in this state must, sooner or later, face the cold realization that justice, slow and plodding though she may be, is certain in the state of Mississippi,″ Justice Mike Mills wrote.

The ailing Beckwith, now 77, was tried twice in 1964, but both all-white juries deadlocked. The case was resurrected and he was convicted in 1994 by a jury of eight blacks and four whites.

The retrial was held at the urging of Evers’ wife, Myrlie Evers-Williams, the national chairwoman of the NAACP. The case became the subject of the 1996 movie ``Ghosts of Mississippi.″

A sniper killed Evers, field secretary for the Mississippi NAACP, in his driveway on June 12, 1963. He was found in a pool of blood, clutching T-shirts with the slogan ``Jim Crow Must Go.″

Beckwith, a fertilizer salesman, claimed he was 90 miles away at the time, but his fingerprint was found on the scope of a rifle believed to be the murder weapon.

Defense lawyer Merrida Coxwell met with Beckwith, who said he wants to appeal in federal court. ``He didn’t cuss or anything like that, just (asked) what’s the next step? We knew the case could go either way,″ Coxwell said.

Beckwith’s son, Byron De La Beckwith VII, said, ``It’s just another one of the stumbling blocks I guess the Lord wants us to get across. We’ll weather this storm. I’m sure his attitude will be, we lost this round, let’s get ready for the next battle.″

Evers-Williams did not return telephone calls to her office in Bend, Ore.

``Before, the killer of a black man would go free. Now we know you just can’t go out and kill a black man or woman and nothing is done,″ said Evers’ brother, Charles. ``Justice finally came. It was a long time coming, but she’s welcome home.″

The heart of Beckwith’s appeal was that he was denied a speedy and fair trial. Many potential witnesses were dead and evidence was lost.

The final resolution of the case ``resulted from voices, both present and past, who showed the courage and will, from 1964 to 1994, to merely state the truth in open court,″ Mills wrote. ``Their voices cannot be ignored.″

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Chief Justice Dan Lee, in a lone dissent, said upholding Beckwith’s conviction ``results in a total eradication of the guarantee of a speedy trial from the constitutional lexicon.″

``The state delayed prosecution of Beckwith for some 9,706 days and, with the legal equivalent of a `straight face,′ asked us to ignore Beckwith’s constitutional rights,″ Lee wrote.

Three of the nine Supreme Court justices did not take part in the appeal. Four justices, including Mills, supported the conviction and one other supported it in part.

Bobby Delaughter, who headed the prosecution, said he was ``relieved and proud″ on behalf of Evers’ family, ``but mainly for the people of Mississippi.″

Beckwith remains in a Jackson jail, where he has been since being sentenced to life in prison.

The telephone at the Signal Mountain, Tenn., home of his wife, Thelma, was busy for several hours after the ruling. His son, DeLa Jr., who lives in north Mississippi, was out of state on vacation and not available for comment, relatives said.

Charles Evers said he wants his brother’s killer sent to state prison.

``I hope he’ll stay there the rest of his life,″ he said. ``Maybe he’ll pay his dues.″