Price and Bowers Trial: 1967
Defense Tactics Fail, Jury Reaches Tough Decision
Defendants: Cecil Price and Sam Bowers, Jr.
Crimes Charged: Conspiracy to violate civil rights
Chief Defense Lawyers: Clayton Lewis, H.C. Watkins, and Laurel Weir
Chief prosecutors: John Doar, Robert Hauberg, and Robert Owen
Judge: William Harold Cox
Place: Meridian, Mississippi
Dates of trial: October 7-20, 1967
Sentence: Bowers, 10 years imprisonment; Price, 6 years imprisonment
SIGNIFICANCE: This trial's historic outcome marked a turning point in the long and often bloody struggle for civil rights that bedeviled Mississippi in the 1960s.
On the morning of June 21, 1964, two committed civil rights campaigners, Michael Schwerner and James Chayney, drove into Neshoba county, Mississippi, to investigate the burning of a church. With them was Andrew Goodman, an anthropology major who had arrived from New York the previous day. That afternoon the trio was arrested for speeding just outside the small town of Philadelphia by local sheriff's deputy Cecil Price. Around 10:00 P.M., after paying a $25 fine, they were released. All three then disappeared. Forty-four days later, following massive federal intervention, their murdered bodies were recovered from beneath a dam.
It soon became clear that a gang made up of local police officers and Ku Klux Klan members had carried out the killings. Equally obvious was the fact that chances of obtaining murder convictions were nonexistent. For this reason the federal government chose to proceed against those implicated on lesser charges of violation of civil rights. When the trial finally came to court 17 men were under indictment, but public attention had concentrated on just two:, Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price and local KKK Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, Jr.
After three years of delays, the trial opened on October 7, 1967. The prosecution team led by the U.S. Justice Department's head civil rights attorney, John Doar, looked positively skimpy when arrayed against no less than a dozen defense attorneys, but the Justice Department case was damning. Doar contended that, while the three men were still in his custody, Price had contacted local KKK members under Bowers' leadership, and that a carefully orchestrated ambush was put into effect. After their release, Schwerner, Chayney and Goodman were again stopped on the highway by Price, who then delivered them into the hands of his co-conspirators. One of those present, James Jordan, testifying for the prosecution, described how all three men were gunned down, then dumped into a prepared grave, which was bulldozed over.
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