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Mistrial in Beckwith Case

Feb. 7, 1964 - Judge Leon Hendrick declared a mistrial today after the jury trying Byron De La Beckwith (pictured) for the murder of Medgar Evers reported it was unable to agree on a verdict. The vote on the 20th ballot, taken after 11 hours of deliberation, was reported by a bailiff to be 7-5 for acquittal. On March 23, Judge Hendrick will set the date for a second trial.

Beckwith, a fertilizer salesman from Greenwood who was so confident of an acquittal that he told the jury as much, listened soberly when, one by one, the jurors told the court they would never be able to agree. The defendant, charged with shooting Mr. Evers, a Negro civil rights leader, in ambush, conferred briefly with his attorneys, kissed his legally estranged wife, and then went upstairs to his jail cell in the Hinds County Courthouse. His attorneys said they would file a motion with Judge Hendrick asking that Beckwith be released on bond pending a second trial. The 43-year-old former Marine has been imprisoned almost eight months awaiting trial.

The outcome of the two-week trial was a surprise to many in Mississippi, both Negro and white, who had expected an acquittal. The votes for conviction meant that some of the men on the all-white jury did not believe two police officers and a businessman from Beckwith’s hometown who testified they saw him 95 miles from the scene of the crime about the time Mr. Evers was killed.

The victim’s widow, Mrs. Myrlie Evers, one of the state’s 50 witnesses, had prepared a statement for release in the event of an acquittal. She was not expecting a hung jury. “The fact that they could not agree signifies something,” she said.

The votes for conviction — which would have meant life imprisonment or death in the gas chamber — were believed at least partly the result of a vigorous prosecution by the young district attorney, William Waller.

Mr. Evers, who was 37, was shot in the back by a high-powered rifle as he stepped from his car at 12:30 a.m. last June 12 after having attended a civil rights rally. He died two hours later. According to the prosecution, the rifle with telescopic sight found near the scene of the crime was owned by Beckwith and bore his fingerprint. Several state witnesses said they saw the accused’s car near Mr. Evers’s home a few days before the crime. Two witnesses said that about 45 minutes before the slaying, they had seen the car parked a few feet from where the gun was found. State attorneys described Beckwith as a “fanatic pure and simple” who reveled in being a “martyr for the cause” of segregation.


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