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Price and Bowers Trial: 1967

Defense Tactics Fail

The defense's key strategy, made plain from the outset, centered around an attempt to enlist the sympathy of Judge William Cox, whose record on civil rights was less than exemplary. Their constant maneuvering for a postponement or mistrial, however, drew this stern rebuke from the judge: "I don't want this to be a pattern for this trial, gentlemen, because we are not going to have a big show out of this case. I don't run a court like that. We are going to try this case, we are going to get rid of it. It's not going to be interminable, so you can just get that out of your minds." Judge Cox's words sent a chill across the defense table as, perhaps for the first time, the accused realized that they might actually be convicted.

Another major miscalculation came when defense attorney Laurel Weir, cross-examining a prosecution witness, the Reverend Charles Johnson, asked if it was true that he [Johnson] and Schwerner had tried to "get young Negro males to sign statements that they would rape one white woman a week during the hot summer of 1964 here in Mississippi." Cox angrily interrupted, saying he found the question "highly improper—I'm not going to allow a farce to be made of this trial and everybody might as well get that through heads, including every one of the defendants."

Delmar Dennis, another renegade Klansman, testified that Bowers bragged to other Klan members of his involvement in the Neshoba killings, crowing: "It was the first time that Christians had planned and carried out the execution of a Jew." Dennis also provided details of a loosely coded letter written by Bowers, in which he had attempted to cover up details of the killings. But perhaps Dennis' most startling revelation came when he identified one of the defense attorneys, Clayton Lewis, as a Klan sympathizer. Laurel Weir's vociferous demands for a mistrial were overruled by Judge Cox.

In closing arguments Doar assured the jurors that "the federal government is not invading Philadelphia or Neshoba Country [but rather] these defendants are tried for a crime under federal law in a Mississippi city, before a Mississippi federal judge, in Mississippi courtroom, before twelve men and women from the state of Mississippi." This was a shrewd move on Doar's part. Throughout the trial he had wisely avoided turning this case into an indictment of the state: he knew his best chance of victory lay in appealing to sound common sense. Then he reminded the jurors:

This was a calculated, cold blooded plot. Three men, hardly more than boys, were the victims. The plot was executed with a degree of self-possession and steadiness equal to the wickedness with which it was planned.

Answering defense complaints that the turncoat Klansmen had been paid sums of money by the government to testify, Doar commented that such actions were necessary on occasion. As he put it, "Midnight murder in the rural area of Neshoba County provides few witnesses."

By contrast, defense attorney, H.C. Watkins excoriated the paid informers, then attempted to blacken the character and intentions of Schwerner, Chayney and Goodman:

It well be that these young men were sacrificed by their own kin for publicity. So far as I have been able to determine, they had no authority to be in Neshoba County. They broke the laws of that county by speeding and they violated the American Constitution by messing in local affairs in a local community. Mississippians rightfully resent some hairy beatnik from another state visiting our state with hate and defying our people.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972Price and Bowers Trial: 1967 - Defense Tactics Fail, Jury Reaches Tough Decision