Conviction in Evers Slaying Raises Hopes for Other Long-Lost Cases With AM-After Evers-Others
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) _ If Medgar Evers’ children can live to see their father’s murderer behind bars, why, Dennis Dahmer wonders, can’t he?
Dahmer’s father was also a victim of a racially motivated murder in the 1960s, and the son - now a Baton Rouge, La., businessman - is among those who hope that the conviction of Evers’ killer will encourage the reopening of other, similar cases.
″Maybe this Evers’ case is an indication that the citizens of Mississippi are willing to deal with these cases the way it should have been done 25 or 30 years ago,″ Dahmer said. ″Maybe things have changed.″
Some civil rights leaders have expressed similar hopes, some comparing the long-dormant race killings in the South to the deeds of Nazi war criminals. The statute of limitations, they say, will never run out.
″There ought to be no refuge in space or time,″ said Circuit Judge D’Army Bailey of Memphis, Tenn., founder of the National Civil Rights Museum. He spoke one day last week while attending the trial of Evers’ killer.
Byron De La Beckwith, an unreconstructed segregationist and steadfast racist, was convicted Saturday of murdering Evers, the Mississippi field secretary for the NAACP, in 1963.
Evers’ killing was the first assassination of a civil rights leader in the 1960s, and one of many racially motivated murder cases that sat unsolved for the past several decades.
Vernon Dahmer, a cotton grower and grocery store owner in Hattiesburg, was active in encouraging blacks to register to vote, and for that the Ku Klux Klan firebombed his home on Jan. 10, 1966. Dahmer died.
Thirteen people were charged in the crime, but only six went to trial. Of those, four Klansmen were convicted and sentenced to prison. But the alleged mastermind, Sam Bowers, then Imperial Wizard of the Klan, was tried twice for murder and both times the juries deadlocked 11-1 for conviction.
Bowers did serve a prison term in a separate case of three slain civil rights activist that inspired the film ″Mississippi Burning.″
Forrest County District Attorney Glenn White reopened the Dahmer case in 1991. In a telephone interview Sunday, he said he is still searching for lost evidence, missing witnesses and the transcript of the first trials.
Prosecutors undertook a similar search in the Evers’ case. The only known transcript was one owned by the victim’s widow, Myrlie Evers, and the murder weapon was mysteriously found in the attic of the prosecutor’s dead father-in- law.
″It’s like opening a brand-new case, but it is 30 years old,″ White said. ″I’m just putting pieces of the puzzle back together.″
He said he didn’t expect the Beckwith verdict to put additional pressure on him to bring fresh charges.
But Dennis Dahmer, who was 12 at the time his father was killed, is growing impatient with the wait for justice. ″I think it’s long overdue,″ he said, ″but better late than never.″
Earl T. Shinhoster, southeast regional director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said that justice ″doesn’t always come when we want it to come, but with perseverance, it does come.″
Still, Shinhoster said that while the NAACP supports reopening civil rights slayings, he also recognizes that time works against prosecutors and that some cases may no longer be feasible.
He noted that the Evers case was only reopened after a series of articles in The Clarion-Ledger newspaper in Jackson in 1989. The articles pointed to the possibility of jury tampering in Beckwith’s first two trials, before white juries in 1964.
Prosecutors were eventually able to get the case retried after reopening their investigation and finding new evidence.
″I daresay it would take something of a proportion or magnitude similar to that to get to a point of reopening some of these other cases - which we may not ever get, to be realistic about it,″ Shinhoster said.
″I think it would take some hard evidence - I mean, let’s face it, (after) 30 years in the Medgar Evers’ saga, we’ve seen witnesses die, evidence disappear. ... The years take their toll on people.″