Old Enemies, New Questions

Medger Evers was only 37 when he died in 1963, but the hard-charging NAACP field secretary spent most of those years organizing voter-registration drives and economic boycotts, making numerous enemies among Mississippi's white segregationists. Someone settled scores with him on the driveway of his Jackson home shortly after midnight on June 12. As he stepped from his car, a rifle shot tore into his back and through his chest. An hour later, he was dead. For a time it looked like justice would be swift. Authorities found a rifle and sniper's scope in a honeysuckle thicket 150 feet from Evers's house. A near-perfect fingerprint quickly led investigators to Byron de la Beckwith, a fertilizer salesman and White Citizens Council organizer from nearby Greenwood. Yet two trials before all-white Hinds County juries ended in deadlocks.

New questions and fresh leads have now reopened the Evers case--and could bring Beckwith to trial again. Beckwith's defense turned on testimony from two police officers who placed him in Greenwood, 100 miles away, around the time Evers was shot. But two Jackson men now say they saw Beckwith at New Jerusalem Baptist Church, where Evers spoke the night he died. Investigators are also talking to Delmar Dennis, a former Ku Klux Klan officer and FBI informant who told author William McIlhany in the 1976 book "Klandestine" that Beckwith bragged about the murder at a Klan meeting in the '60s. "Killing that nigger gave me no more inner discomfort than our wives endure when they give birth to our children," Beckwith reportedly said. "We ask them to do that for us. We should do just as much."

There is also disturbing evidence that Beckwith had help from the state in beating the murder charge. Local civil-rights leaders and elected officials demanded a new probe last fall after the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported that the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, the now defunct agency created to preserve segregation, had aided Beckwith's defense by screening prospective jurors. Commission files obtained by the newspaper indicate that panelists were described in phrases such as "likely to be a fair and impartial juror" and "believed to be Jewish." But prosecutors can't prove direct contact between jurors and the commission and concluded that jury-tampering charges could not stick. Other questionable official conduct surrounds the case. No one can explain why it took 16 years to unearth Beckwith's published boasts about the murder. Equally mysterious is the disappearance of the World War I rifle used to kill Evers. Last year District Attorney Ed Peters maintained that it was missing. Several weeks ago Peters admitted that the gun had been in his office for months.

The two mistrials pose no legal barriers to prosecuting Beckwith again; there is no statute of limitations on murder. But the passage of time may hurt the state's case. Some witnesses are in poor health, and key physical evidence--crime-scene sketches, autopsy reports--may be lost as well. Assistant District Attorney Bobby DeLaughter says he is committed to the case, but the evidence may not be strong enough to convince a jury. "Unfortunately, you've got some people in the community that probably have the opinion, 'Who cares? The case is 27 years old'."

Supremacist sect: Beckwith, who says he didn't kill Evers, continued a career of hate after his two trials. He served five years at Angola State Prison in Louisiana in the 1970s for transporting a bomb across state lines without a license. New Orleans police said Beckwith was headed for the home of a local Jewish leader. Near 70 and living in Signal Mountain, Tenn., he serves as a minister in the Identity Church, a sect that claims a Biblical origin for its racist, anti-Semitic doctrines. Beckwith still refers to Evers as "a very famous nigger agitator" and insists that news organizations seeking interviews send no "Jews, niggers and Orientals."

The new probe has encouraged Myrlie Evers, the slain leader's widow, now remarried and serving as a public-works commissioner in Los Angeles. She remembers the stream of back-patting well-wishers, including former governor Ross Barnett, who visited Beckwith during the trials. "I've always felt [Evers's] death was a conspiracy of sorts," she says, "even though one person pulled the trigger." Those who mourn Evers hope the system can put Beckwith back at the defendant's table.