Beating of Recaptured Inmate Brings Indictment of Guards


ATLANTA, June 15, 1994— A Federal grand jury in Mississippi has indicted six state corrections employees, including the department's deputy commissioner, in connection with the 1991 beating of an inmate who had been recaptured after escaping from a state prison. more...

Jury chosen after series of exclusions
By Beverly Pettigrew Kraft, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

HATTIESBURG — A jury of six whites, five blacks and one Asian will decide whether former Ku Klux Klan leader Sam Bowers ordered the 1966 firebombing that killed NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer. more...

Defiance and Compliance

In the years 1963-68, civil rights activists and hard-line segregationists battled like never before. Militancy in both camps increased in the mid-1960s. After the Ole’ Miss crisis, the unity of white segregationists began to crumble. more...

Exposing the Secret Mississippi Racism
By Marcel Dufresne Clarion-Ledger

On June 23, 1963, two days after avowed white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith was first arrested in the ambush murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, the hometown Clarion-Ledger led its story with a curious headline: "Californian is Charged with Murder of Evers." more...

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Why It’s So Hard to Fire an Abusive Prison Guard

Corrections officials say he injured an inmate and lied about it. He’s still a state employee. He’s more the rule than the exception. more...

Why it’s Hard to be a Lifer Who’s Getting Out of Prison

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New York Times

Beating of Recaptured Inmate Brings Indictment of Guards

Published: June 16, 1994

ATLANTA, June 15— A Federal grand jury in Mississippi has indicted six state corrections employees, including the department's deputy commissioner, in connection with the 1991 beating of an inmate who had been recaptured after escaping from a state prison.

The nine-count indictment was unsealed on Tuesday in Federal District Court in Oxford, Miss., as Federal prosecutors announced that five other guards had pleaded guilty to charges of helping to beat the inmate or taking part in a cover-up.

Those named in the indictment included Steven W. Puckett, 43, the former warden at the prison, in Parchman, who is now the deputy commissioner of Mississippi's Corrections Department. He is charged with one count of failing to prevent the assault on the inmate, a charge that carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Mr. Puckett's lawyer, Sam Wilkins, said the official and the five other employees named in the indictment pleaded not guilty on Tuesday.

The indictment announced by John Hailman, the United States Attorney for Northern Mississippi, asserted that the officials and guards beat, kicked and pistol-whipped the inmate, Larry Floyd, 33. The inmate had been recaptured after escaping from the 5,600-inmate prison in the state's northwestern Sunflower County.

"Even though Floyd did not resist arrest or threaten anyone, he was assaulted, kicked and hit in the head with a gun," Mr. Hailman said on Tuesday. "It was the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain."

Mississippi's county jails run by local sheriffs have been a subject of other Federal investigations over the last year. Civil rights groups have asserted that an inordinate number of black inmates been found dead in their cells with many of those deaths having been ruled suicides. Although Mr. Floyd is black, so are some defendants, and race is not thought to be an issue.

Mr. Floyd, who at the time of his escape was a trustee working in the prison's minimum security, pre-release program, had been serving a life sentence on murder charges since 1980. He was recaptured after one day and beaten by at least eight corrections officers, prosecutors have said. Four officers have already pleaded guilty of participating in the beating, while the fifth pleaded guilty to a chargeof failing to report it.

The men other than Mr. Puckett named in the indictment are charged with assault. They are Christopher B. Epps, 33, then the deputy warden and now a top official in the department's main office; Lieut. David Johns, 44; Lieut. Jerry W. Oaks, 34; Lieut. Terry Lynn Winters, 36, and Officer Roger Lynn Little, 38.

Two men, Lieutenants Johns and Winters, were also accused of perjury and trying to influence witnesses before the grand jury .

Mr. Wilkins said that the single charge against Mr. Puckett, was punishment for of his refusal to testify before the grand jury investigating the beating. He said Mr. Puckett had not testified because he was not present at the incident.

Since early 1992, the beaten inmate has been serving his sentence at the another state prison, the Southern Mississippi Correctional Institution in Leakesville. back to top >>

Jury chosen after series of exclusions
By Beverly Pettigrew Kraft, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

HATTIESBURG — August 18, 1998 A jury of six whites, five blacks and one Asian will decide whether former Ku Klux Klan leader Sam Bowers ordered the 1966 firebombing that killed NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer.

Opening arguments are set to begin at 9 a.m. today in Forrest County Circuit Court.

Some would-be jurors were excluded because they said they had already made up their minds Bowers is guilty. Others were excused after they questioned why prosecutors are retrying Bowers in a 32-year-old case.

Four of the jurors weren’t even born at the time Dahmer was killed. Two others were toddlers.

“I decided years ago that guilt was there and it was just an injustice. I feel like Mr. Bowers gave the order,” said a white female retired Social Security Administration worker who has lived in Hattiesburg since 1961.

Circuit Judge Richard McKenzie said he was concerned for the safety of the potential jurors given the emotional nature of the case and had asked reporters not to use the jurors’ names.

A 45-year-old white former Navy mechanic said, “If a man ... has been to trial more than two times and has not been convicted, I don’t see why he’s coming back. Is it going to happen again if he’s not convicted?”

A 50-year-old white female homemaker said,“I’m sympathetic with the Dahmers but I do not see the necessity of a trial after 30 years.“

A 30-year-old black female student said, “I feel like he’s got away this long. It should be dismissed. He’s lived his life.”

A 44-year-old white secretary said, “As far as political reasons, who is running for governor? Maybe that is why they are bringing it up.“

Democratic Attorney General Mike Moore, who has said he is considering a run for governor, has lent his office’s assistance in the prosecution.

At the defense table sat Shawn O’Hara, who recently lost his bid for the Republican nomination for 5th District congressman, says he is running for governor as a Republican. O’Hara works as a paralegal in between races for political office.

Staunch Republican views were enough to get two people kicked off the jury. Forrest County Assistant District Attorney Robert Helfrich cited political party identification twice.

Prosecutors used peremptory strikes to exclude 11 whites. Defense lawyers struck six black jurors and six white jurors.

Defense attorney Travis Buckley of Ellisville objected to prosecutors’ exclusion of white jurors. Buckley argued that a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said black jurors could not be excluded because of race should also prohibit exclusion of white jurors in Bowers’ case.

Helfrich in defending his jury strikes gave reasons ranging from political affiliation to one man who liked hunting dogs.

“That’s race neutral. I don’t want to put a lot of hunters on there,” Helfrich said.

Circuit Judge Richard McKenzie ruled that the prosecutor’s exclusions were not based on race.

The jury is made up of five white women, three black women, two black men, one white man and one Asian man.

Alternate jurors are a black woman and a white man.

The jurors include two teachers, a University of Southern Mississippi staff member, a bank teller, a bookkeeper, a furniture saleswoman, a manufacturing company administrator, a credit counselor, a mortgage loan processor, a machine operator, someone who was retired military, and an X-ray technologist. They ranged in age from 25 to 59. back to top >>


Defiance and Compliance

In the years 1963-68, civil rights activists and hard-line segregationists battled like never before. Militancy in both camps increased in the mid-1960s. After the Ole’ Miss crisis, the unity of white segregationists began to crumble. Moderate whites were shocked by the violence at Ole’ Miss and began to abandon the Citizens’ Council. But white hard-liners began to feel that the Citizens’ Council was no longer doing enough to fend off integration. Beginning in 1963, much of the violence directed at African Americans (and their white allies) in Mississippi was organized by the Ku Klux Klan.

The racial terrorism ranged from cross-burnings and church-bombings to beatings and murder. In the summer of 1964 alone, Mississippi journalist Jerry Mitchell reports, “Klansmen had killed six [people], shot 35 others and beaten another 80. The homes, businesses and churches of 68 Mississippians associated with the civil rights movement were firebombed.”

October 28, 1965, Ku Klux Klan rally in a Hattiesburg (Miss.) pasture featured on the front page of the October 29, 1965, Hattiesburg American. E. L. McDaniel, Grand Dragon, at microphone. (MDAH)

Despite these horrific figures, the civil rights movement scored important victories in the mid- and late-1960s. Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Acts, which, over time, increased the political power of African Americans in Mississippi. However virulent white opposition was, whites could not defy anti-segregation laws forever. Some accommodation was required. But the road to that accommodation in Mississippi was filled with blood.

Since the end of the 1920s, the Klan had been largely inactive in Mississippi. Historians say the Klan simply wasn’t needed to maintain white supremacy. But as the civil rights movement gained momentum in the state, a man named Edward L. McDaniel was recruited to revive the Klan. McDaniel was born and raised in Natchez, Mississippi, near the border of Louisiana. He grew up in Depression-era poverty and dropped out of high school to help earn money for his family. He was mobilized to fight civil rights activists by the Ole’ Miss crisis. McDaniel was especially embittered toward the federal government. “We had witnessed what happened in Little Rock under the Eisenhower administration,” McDaniel said in an oral history interview. “And then this happen[ed] here at home. It really upset me and it upset a lot of other people. But it seemed like every way you'd go your hands were tied.”

In 1963 McDaniel was working as a truck driver and made frequent deliveries in Louisiana. One day when he was discussing the Ole’ Miss crisis with a friend in Louisiana the man invited him to a meeting. “We sat there and talked a while, and then about that time a guy come out and he was robed out [wearing a Klan robe],” McDaniel said.

“He went through the process of wanting to know if I wanted to join the Klan and how I felt about the situation with the Klan,” McDaniel continued. “I made a decision that evening. I went in, was sworn in the Klan, and I guess thirty or forty guys that was robed out and everything. It was a real experience. And when they took the robes off, I knew half of them or more.”

McDaniel worked relentlessly to build up the Klan in Mississippi. Within six months, he had organized chapters in 76 counties in the state. In 1964, McDaniel became Grand Dragon of the United Klans of America (UKA). Like the Citizens’ Council, the UKA disavowed violence, while secretly condoning it. But a rival Klan emerged in Mississippi at the same time, the White Knights of the KKK. They were more secretive than the UKA, but more deadly. According to sociologist David Cunningham: “ The White Knights were responsible for most of the highly visible acts of violence in MS throughout ‘60s,” including at least ten murders.

But as the Klan intensified its reign of terror, civil rights activists pumped up the pressure for change in Mississippi. These activists included the white Methodist minister Ed King, chaplain at Tougaloo College, a historically black school in Jackson. In 1963 King began challenging segregation at whites-only churches in Jackson. He would bring groups of Tougaloo students to the steps of white churches and ask to be let in. The black students were almost always refused.

“The idea was to appeal nonviolently to the best of the white community,” King says. “Underneath it all were the theories of the American dilemma, that if you can show the contrast between the reality and the American dream then you have a resource in all the American people for change.” The church-visit campaign did not bring immediate change. Instead, religious historian Charles Marsh writes it had, “all the makings of a theater of the absurd, wherein the myriad religious and racial contradictions of the closed society became evidenced and pantomimed.” Nevertheless, King says, the church visits spawned important inter-racial dialogue, especially in the fall of 1963 after the massive March on Washington.

“On the steps of churches, many denominations, blacks and whites would talk for fifteen or twenty minutes,” King recalled. “The doors [of the church] would be closed and then people would say, ‘What would Jesus do? What’s your religious teaching for this?’ For six or eight weeks there were whites who would tell the ushers, ‘I don’t think I can worship here today,’ and go home.”

The Jackson Citizens’ Council moved to crush the church-visit campaign. In October 1963, Jackson police began arresting blacks and whites involved in the “pray-ins.” Still, the campaign continued into the following spring and early summer. Then on June 16, 1964 the White Knights of the KKK killed three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi -- James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. After that, Ed King says he lost faith in trying to appeal to the white community. In the eulogy he delivered at the memorial service for James Chaney, King condemned white moderates for not just tolerating, but helping to foster, flagrant racial injustice.

“These people are just as guilty as the ‘sick white Mississippians’ who carried out the brutal murder, and more damned in their souls because they know it’s wrong,’” King said.

Looking back, King blames Mississippi whites for moral failure. He includes those who fought to preserve segregation and those who remained passive. But King says he understands why, in the churches, so many whites were timid. “They had to worry about losing their resources. It became self-defense very quickly,” he said. King remembers a rabbi whose home was bombed in Jackson because so many Jewish students were involved in the civil rights movement. He says such events had a chilling effect on the rest of the white community.

Throughout the years that E. L. McDaniel and Ed King were fighting on opposite sides of the Mississippi civil rights movement, a politician named William Winter was trying to find some middle way. It was difficult to do. Winter served in the Mississippi legislature from 1948 to 1956, and in other political positions through the 1960s. By the time he ran for Governor in 1967, Winter was known as a moderate and had many black supporters. His opponent, hard-line segregationist John Bell Williams, attacked Winter as a liberal whose election would “insure Negro domination.” Winter went before a Citizens’ Council forum to dispel concerns about his racial views. He told the group: “As a fifth generation Mississippian whose grandfather rode with [Nathan Bedford] Forrest, I was born a segregationist and raised a segregationist. I have always defended this position. I defend it now.”

Winter lost the election to Williams. In retrospect, Winter has great misgivings about his capitulation to Williams’ attack. And other things, too. “I regret that we ever had a system of segregation,” Winter says.

“But it is one I inherited,” Winter says. “I did not create it. I was brought up to believe that was the way people - at least in this part of the country – ought to live. I never questioned it until I had…experiences…that began to change my mind. As I began that process of changing, I found myself increasingly uncomfortable verbally affirming that I’m a segregationist. But in the course of maintaining any sort of eligibility to be elected to public office, one didn’t disavow that. That’s what I regret the most.”

William Winter was elected Governor of Mississippi in 1980. He was later appointed to serve on President Clinton’s national advisory commission on race.

The period between 1963 and 1968 in Mississippi was a time of direct, intense racial confrontation, widespread Klan terrorism, crucial civil rights victories, and the beginnings of tepid accommodation to a changing racial order. How whites adapted to this change helped shape Mississippi politics for the rest of the century. Indeed, the mid-to-late 1960s saw a crucial evolution in Mississippi’s political relationship to the rest of the United States.

In the 1964 presidential election, white Mississippi voters were profoundly out of step with the rest of country. They voted overwhelmingly for Republican candidate Barry Goldwater when Democrat Lyndon Johnson won by a landslide. But within a few years -- as racial violence broke out in urban areas in the North and West -- it became clear that Mississippi was not quite as different from the rest of the country as people outside the state wanted to believe. As Joseph Crespino writes, “By decade’s end…Mississippi racism seemed less like a blight on America’s character than a metaphor for all that was wrong with the nation…Mississippi was not a closed society; it was America writ small.”

In fact, many changes occurred during the long civil rights struggle in Mississippi that wrought tidal changes in American politics. “In a variety of complicated ways,” writes Crespino, “white Mississippians accommodated themselves to changes demanded by black Mississippians and the federal government. By doing so, they contributed to a broad, popular reaction against modern liberalism that reshaped American politics in the closing decades of the twentieth century.”

Heard one way, stories of the Mississippi civil rights movement culminate in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. The legislation brought the fall of Jim Crow segregation and the rise of black political participation in the state. But a watershed moment does not immediately re-channel the flow of history. The story of racial change in Mississippi shows the halting progress of social transformation as it trails—with sometimes excruciating slowness—the pace of legal change. back to top >>

Exposing the Secret Mississippi Racism
By Marcel Dufresne Clarion-Ledger

On June 23, 1963, two days after avowed white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith was first arrested in the ambush murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, the hometown Clarion-Ledger led its story with a curious headline: "Californian is Charged with Murder of Evers."

Curious because the headline obscured the fact that Beckwith, a California-born fertilizer salesman with a record of racist activities, had deep roots in the South and lived most of his life in Greenwood, Mississippi, 90 miles north of Jackson. The headline became the most quoted in the paper's 154-year history, symbolizing an alliance with segregationists that had earned it the nickname "The Klan-Ledger" from civil rights advocates in Mississippi during the 1950s and '60s.

A quarter century after two separate murder trials of Beckwith ended in hung juries, it was a far different Clarion-Ledger that led the charge beginning two years ago to reopen the Evers case, one of the most notorious murders in the racially explosive '60s. Back then the paper was owned by the powerful Hederman family, which had no qualms about slanting the news in its substantial newspaper holdings across Mississippi to reflect its opposition to integration. In what some think is a fitting irony, the Clarion-Ledger was purchased in 1982 by Gannett, a chain with an aggressive policy of hiring and promoting blacks, and of covering minority communities. Today, the paper has one of the few black managing editors in the country, and at least three times the national average of black professionals in its newsroom.

The paper's campaign to reopen the Evers murder case began on October 1, 1989, with disclosures from secret state government files that state spies had investigated prospective jurors in Beckwith's second trial and turned the information over to his defense lawyers. Three days later, an editorial urged county prosecutors to reopen the case, and a series of follow-up stories added fuel to the case against Beckwith. Before the month was out, the Hinds County district attorney said he would reexamine the case and possibly convene a new grand jury. Fourteen months later, the feisty Beckwith, now 70 and living in Tennessee, was indicted to stand trial a third time. (Double jeopardy doesn't apply in the Beckwith case because he was never acquitted; prosecutors simply chose not to try him again after the second trial ended in a hung jury in 1964.)

The Evers case is just one example of the paper's dogged determination to unearth hidden events in Mississippi's painfully racist past. On the 25th anniversary of the murder of three civil rights workers near Philadelphia, Mississippi, the paper pushed prosecutors to reopen that case. Then the paper reported that agents for the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a state agency dedicated to fighting integration, had spied on one of the slain workers three months before they were killed.

The paper even turned its reporting on itself, revealing the paper's complicity in battling integration during the 1950s and '60s. Writing from a huge cache of leaked Sovereignty Commission records, the paper documented what most people always suspected, that the Clarion-Ledger 's previous management often conspired with the state to preserve segregation and undermine civil rights leaders. The files also gave readers their first inside look at the commission's clandestine program of harassing and spying on civil rights advocates and ordinary citizens who supported integration.

The paper's coverage comes as Mississippi is struggling to reverse its lingering image as backwards and racist. The coverage also figures prominently in a process of public contrition and catharsis. During a ceremony marking the 25th anniversary of the Philadelphia murders, Secretary of State Dick Molpus told nearly a thousand people at the highly publicized gathering, "We deeply regret what happened here 25 years ago. We wish we could undo it."

As the paper's own reporting showed, the old Clarion-Ledger had plenty to be sorry for. "It must have been about the worst newspaper in the world in the '60s," says Cliff Sessions, a Mississippi native and former UPI bureau manager in Jackson who left for Washington after his friend Evers was killed. Recently retired, Sessions has moved back to Mississippi after 26 years. "It's remarkable to me, having read the Clarion-Ledger back in the '60s, to see it now," he says.

The paper's campaign to expose, and perhaps right, old wrongs is applauded by black leaders, many whites, and journalists in and outside Mississippi. Daily circulation has climbed since TheClarion-Ledger merged with the Jackson Daily News in 1989, from 99,000 to 107,787.

But the coverage hasn't sat well with everyone, especially old-guard conservative readers who reject the notion of collective guilt. "That doesn't sell with me," says David Halbrook, a 24-year veteran of the state legislature. Halbrook, who is white, says many whites resent being made to feel guilty when they had no personal involvement in acts of racism or violence against blacks. "I don't think I've treated them that badly."

Readers also complain that resurrecting the ugly ghosts of the past only rekindles smoldering racial fears and animosities and diverts attention from the state's real problems, like education and poverty. "I don't think we need to ignore or blot out completely the past," says Halbrook. "But I don't think it will improve relations to keep that bubbling high in the public consciousness."

Medgar Evers arrived at his Jackson home just after midnight June 12, 1963, after a late NAACP meeting. As the 37-year-old field secretary for the state's largest civil rights group, Evers was its most visible activist, organizing boycotts and demonstrations in the racial tinderbox that Jackson was becoming. The assassin was waiting behind a tree 200 feet away when Evers' blue 1962 Oldsmobile turned into the driveway of his ranch-style house. As Evers closed the car door, a rifle shot ripped through his back below his right shoulder blade, then through a window and an inside wall of his house. Evers crawled to his front door and was lying there as his wife Myrlie opened it. He died on the way to the hospital.

The rifle was found hidden in brush behind the tree. A fingerprint expert identified a single print on the gun sight, that of its owner, Byron De La Beckwith. Beckwith claimed the gun had been stolen.

Reporter Jerry Mitchell was just four years old when Evers was killed. When he arrived in Mississippi 23 years later after growing up in Texas, the Evers case had long since disappeared from the news pages.

But Mitchell's curiosity about Mississippi's civil rights murders was piqued in January 1989 when he accompanied two FBI agents to a local press screening of the film, "Mississippi Burning." The agents had been in Jackson during the 1960s, and Mitchell wanted to get their reaction to the fictionalized account of the Philadelphia murders. (The two agents told Mitchell they liked the movie and thought it captured the violence and racial tension that gripped Mississippi during the '60s.)

Two months later the paper got a tip that several sealed documents of the Sovereignty Commission had been misfiled with public court records in the Federal District Court in Jackson. The tip led to a story by Mitchell, co-written with former staffer Joe O'Keefe, that showed a commission spy had infiltrated a civil rights coalition in 1964 and copied the files of volunteers who were registering voters during the upcoming Freedom Summer. The story was the first public disclosure from the long-sealed commission records, and it established Mitchell as an interested, even sympathetic, reporter to potential sources who knew what was inside the secret documents.

The local ACLU had been trying to open the files since 1977, when the Mississippi Legislature dissolved the commission and sealed its records until the year 2027. The federal court granted limited access to ACLU officials and people named in the records, provided they sign a pledge not to disclose what they'd seen. Anyone violating the pledge faced federal prosecution on contempt charges.

Mitchell's next peek at the files came in September, when a source leaked him documents revealing that the commission had spied on Michael Schwerner three months before he and two other civil rights workers were slain near Philadelphia. Mitchell's story reported that a county sheriff had kept Schwerner and his wife under surveillance for the commission and that the commission had circulated a description and the license number of the 1963 blue Ford station wagon used by the Schwerners and other workers for the Congress of Racial Equality. It wasn't clear from the files how long the surveillance lasted, but Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney were last seen alive on June 21, 1964, when they were released from jail at 10:30 p.m. after Neshoba County police stopped the station wagon and arrested them for speeding.

Former commission officials rejected any culpability in the slayings, but Mitchell's story quoted a University of Mississippi history professor who suggested that the commission's actions may have encouraged the murders. "They may not have said, 'Go kill them,' but they sure made it easy," he said. Nineteen men were arrested in the case – seven were convicted of federal civil rights violations and an eighth pleaded guilty – but Mississippi has never prosecuted anyone for murder.

The second and ultimately most significant leak of documents came a few weeks later, this time concerning the Evers case. Mitchell's story revealed that a commission agent had gathered personal information on prospective jurors for Beckwith's second trial in 1964, and had turned its reports over to Beckwith's defense attorney. "The commission detailed their racial views, their ancestry and listed those likely to be 'fair and impartial,' including a White Citizens Council member," the paper wrote in a summary of its investigation. "'Fair' jurors made the panel; those with improper 'thinking' did not." The story raised the possibility of jury tampering by the commission and the paper pressed Hinds County District Attorney Ed Peters to reopen the case. Peters investigated but said he could find no evidence of jury tampering. However, over the next 14 months prosecutors quietly reviewed evidence and interviewed witnesses in the decades-old Evers case.

Meanwhile, the paper printed dozens of stories. One disclosed that the rifle used to kill Evers, missing since 1969, had been in the possession of a Hinds County judge. Another showed that former Gov. J.P. Coleman had asked the Sovereignty Commission to spy on Evers in 1958.

One day Mitchell picked up his phone to hear a caller bellow, "What are you doing writing all this stuff about that dead nigger?" Others in the newsroom received similar calls.

Racist readers weren't the only ones angered by the coverage. U.S. District Judge William Barbour Jr., who had jurisdiction over the commission files, was so incensed by the leaks that he reportedly asked the U.S. Attorney to convene a grand jury to investigate. That never happened, but FBI agents interviewed people with access to the files and questioned Mitchell about his sources.

The identities of Mitchell's sources were never even hinted at in print. The paper quoted directly from the files but told readers nothing about how they had been obtained. Today, all Mitchell will say is that the files came from several "disconnected" sources "who probably didn't even know that the others existed."

By mid-December, one of those sources trusted Mitchell enough to take the biggest risk yet. Mitchell had been trying for several months to persuade the source to provide more material from the files. One morning as they spoke (at a place Mitchell will not divulge), the source pointed to a stack of files sitting in plain view, and told Mitchell he could take them. Mitchell couldn't believe it: What he considered Mississippi's version of the Pentagon Papers weren't even locked up. Mitchell peered outside to see if anyone was watching, then loaded some 700 documents containing secrets the public wasn't supposed to hear until 2027 into his Honda hatchback. Back at the newsroom, Mitchell began reading while a secretary began photocopying. A few days later, he drove what became known in the newsroom as "the mother lode" back to his source.

The Sovereignty Commission files, locked in six file cabinets, were potential dynamite when the state legislature sealed them in 1977. They remained explosive in 1990, and the paper knew it. White public officials who had helped the commission fight integration faced political embarrassment or ruin, while blacks who accepted money to spy against other blacks feared repudiation by family and friends. Moreover, the paper knew that the files were filled with inaccuracies, rumors and unsubstantiated allegations.

The paper adopted guidelines before using someone's name: Any living person mentioned in the files, whether a spy or victim of spying, was approached for an interview. Victims who couldn't be reached were not identified. When possible, relatives of dead victims were interviewed. Spies still living were given a chance to explain their actions, and all spies, living or dead, were named. In the end, the paper used only a fraction of the information it had, which was just a fraction of the original files.

On January 28, 1990, "Mississippi's Secret Past," a series by Mitchell and reporters Leesha Cooper and Michael Rejebian, took readers inside the commission files and introduced them to the victims, both prominent and obscure, of the agency's spy activities. The stories reported that:

The commission investigated hundreds of people, including teachers, preachers and students, for alleged civil rights leanings and subversive activities. Some of those people lost their jobs.

The commission used dozens of spies, white and black, who infiltrated various organizations and helped collect incriminating information. Among the paid black informants were Percy Greene, the late editor of the weekly Jackson Advocate , Mississippi's largest black newspaper, and B.L. Bell, a prominent black educator.

U.S. Sen. James O. Eastland, who died in 1986, supplied the commission with the names of constituents who his office knew supported civil rights. The paper also detailed Eastland's role in forcing the resignation of the president of Tougaloo College, a private black college and a hotbed of early civil rights activities. Hoping to find links to communism, the Senate Judiciary Committee that Eastland chaired investigated the school's white president, A.D. Beittel, and other officials and faculty. When Eastland's probe turned up nothing, he urged the Sovereignty Commission to try the Louisiana UnAmerican Activities Committee, the commission's counterpart in that state and one of about a half dozen like it across the South. That agency supplied documents purporting to show that Beittel belonged to three "communist front" groups. The commission presented the information to the college's trustees and offered them a deal: Get rid of Beittel and Commission Director Erle Johnston Jr. would use his influence to keep the legislature from revoking the school's 94-year-old charter. Four days later Beittel was fired. Beittel, who is dead, was not a communist, the paper concluded.

The president of a private black Methodist college, Earnest A. Smith, was described as "a known liar and ladies' man" in a 1964 commission report to the governor and trustees in an attempt to oust him. The report also said Smith had hired instructors who were "known or suspected homosexuals." The report named the instructors, but the newspaper didn't. Smith survived the smear campaign and resigned of his own choice in 1966, he told the paper.

The commission planted a story in the Jackson Advocate tying the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to the Communist Party, knowing that the story would be reprinted in Jackson's two daily newspapers. The scheme was outlined in a March 24, 1964, memo by Commission Director Johnston. "In this manner the story will be more effective because a Negro will be the author...The Sovereignty Commission will not appear in any of the publicity." The item was picked up by the Associated Press and put on its national wire.

The paper interviewed and carried stories about numerous citizens whose lives were invaded by the commission: a black high school teacher accused, incorrectly, of attending meetings in Jackson to plan civil rights demonstrations; a black dentist who was investigated after he sought admission to the Mississippi Dental Association; and a white preacher who was visited by two commission investigators after writing Eastland a letter urging him to support civil rights.

The series also spotlighted the paper's own ugly past. The Jackson papers "regularly killed stories and ran segregationist propaganda" at the commission's request, Mitchell wrote, and "willingly aided state officials' fight to keep whites in power." In one instance, the paper detailed commission documents that showed how the commission had managed to spike a news story about white children with a small percent of black blood who were kept out of Mississippi public schools for several years in the '60s. The commission supplied Editor Tom Hederman, now dead, with secret agency files and described Daily News Editor Jimmy Ward as having "excellent judgment on what not to print."

The commission routinely provided the newspapers with information for editorials, columns and news stories, and one reporter even was paid to subscribe to communist publications for the commission to review, the paper reported.

T o many in Mississippi, Byron De La Beckwith stands as a symbol of unrighted wrongs, a reminder of a time when juries were all-male and all-white, and when public officials could call blacks "niggers" in public. "Delay" Beckwith, as his friends called him, stood trial twice in 1964 for Evers' murder. His gun was used to kill Evers and witnesses placed his car in the vicinity that night. But two policemen from Greenwood testified that they saw Beckwith in that town about the time of the murder. Twice, juries couldn't reach a verdict and Beckwith went free.

The Clarion-Ledger continued to break important stories in the Evers case between October 1989, when commission files pertaining to the case were leaked to Mitchell, and Beckwith's third indictment last December. Dozens of articles appeared, many on the front page. A May 1990 story by Mitchell quoted a former Ku Klux Klan officer as saying that Beckwith had, during a Klan rally, admitted killing Evers.

The paper put heat on county prosecutors in June 1990 when it reported that they had hidden the fact that they had the rifle used to kill Evers. Prosecutors had insisted they didn't know where the rifle was, even though Assistant District Attorney Bobby DeLaughter had found the gun a few months earlier at the home of his late father-in-law, Hinds County Circuit Judge Russel D. Moore III.

In June 1990, ABC's "Prime Time Live" reported finding four new witnesses who said they saw Beckwith in Jackson the night Evers was murdered. The story refocused national attention on the case and kept pressure on prosecutors.

On December 17, the eve of Beckwith's indictment, the Clarion-Ledger gave readers an in-depth glimpse of the ailing white supremacist. Interviewed at his home in Signal Mountain, Tennessee, Beckwith denied killing Evers, as he had always done, then went on to spew a racial diatribe. "We need to reestablish a confederate state of America as a white Christian republic," Beckwith was quoted as saying. "We don't need any dark-skinned, yellow-skinned or blue-skinned mongrels running it."

The next day the paper published three pages about Beckwith's arrest and the Evers case. One of the stories quoted educators and black leaders as saying the renewed prosecution could "improve race relations in Mississippi and help the state's national image."

But critics would like to see the paper gear down what they view as obsessive attention to racial matters. David Halbrook, the white legislator, for example, cites coverage of the local custom of noting a customer's race on a check before cashing it. Focus on such issues, he believes, fuels racial discord and "is counterproductive if you're trying to improve race relations."

Wirt Yerger Jr., a white businessman and former chairman of the state Republican Party, believes the paper "looks at everything as race." In Yerger's view, the city council was fiscally irresponsible when, in awarding a contract, it skipped the low bidder in favor of a firm whose owners were black. Yet the Clarion-Ledger , he notes, applauded the action.

The paper's transformation from segregationist mouthpiece to investigative avenger actually began before Gannett bought it. A younger generation Hederman took over the news operation in 1973 in the person of 29-year-old Rea Hederman, a product of the graduate school of journalism at the University of Missouri. The paper soon hired its first black reporter, made blacks more visible in its news pages and began winning reporting awards. But something about Rea Hederman's regime unsettled his relatives. One day in 1982, he came to work to learn from his secretary that he'd been fired. Soon after, the paper was sold to Gannett. (Hederman is now owner and publisher of The New York Review of Books .)

Today 16 percent of the Clarion-Ledger 's newsroom professionals are black – below the Jackson metropolitan area ratio of 43 percent but at least triple the industry average. The managing editor, news editor and graphics director are black. But that doesn't mean coverage favors the black community, says black City Councilman Louis Armstrong. If anything, Armstrong says, most blacks feel "the paper deemphasizes race in most instances." Blacks were incensed by recent investigative coverage of financial problems at the predominantly black Jackson State College. Black leaders felt the stories unfairly blamed the school's black president, who resigned under pressure.

The paper's image clearly has been enhanced by its coverage of the Evers case and the Sovereignty Commission. Last year it won a first prize for investigative reporting from the Mississippi Press Association. After the indictments of Beckwith, its early stories on the case were noted in publications around the country.

Meanwhile, a Tennessee appeals court has ordered Beckwith extradited to Mississippi to stand trial a third time, but the state Supreme Court stayed the order pending a review.

Jerry Mitchell, whose reporting pried the case open, has left the paper but not the story. He plans to cover the trial of Beckwith, if there is a trial, and write a book on the case for Random House. (Two other books on the case are underway.)

Mitchell is not among those who fear that raking over the glowing coals of racism will create a new divisiveness. "As a white Southerner," he says, "I think we bear a certain guilt for what our relatives and others have done. Going back and exposing the past is one way to redress those wrongs."

A new trial was ordered after Jerry Mitchell, a reporter for The Clarion-Ledger, Jackson's daily newspaper, used information leaked from Sovereignty Commission files to write in 1989 that the commission had secretly aided in Mr. Beckwith's defense by helping to screen potential jurors to weed out Jews and civil rights sympathizers.

The unsealing of the Sovereignty Commission files ended a two-decade legal battle that began in 1977, when the state Legislature voted the commission out of existence but sealed its records for 50 years. The American Civil Liberties Union and several individuals filed suit to keep the records open, and in 1989 Judge William H. Barbour of Federal District Court here ordered that they be released.

It took nine more years to satisfy appeals and to establish a process to allow subjects of the commission's investigations to exert their rights to keep their own files private. Some of the commission's files have been reportedly destroyed, and about 7,700 pages out of a total of 132,000 pages of files remain secret because 42 people claimed privacy rights, said Katie Blount, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, which has maintained and indexed the files.

The commission, which was created in 1956 with a $250,000 budget, formally existed until 1977. It was the model for similar agencies that fought desegregation in other states.

The opening of the Sovereignty Commission files has generated a debate here between those who believe that the ugliness of the past should remain buried and those who believe that only a full airing can bring healing. Some civil rights advocates have fought the opening of the files because they believe their release could hurt the subjects of Sovereignty Commission investigations once again by releasing unsavory, and possibly untrue, details about their personal lives.

''It will probably bring forth some memories of a bad time in the state, which we all acknowledge was a bad time now,'' said former Mississippi Gov. William F. Winter, a member of the President's Advisory Board on Race. ''I hope it'll be the basis for understanding that we can't ever lapse back into the kind of intolerance we once had in this state.''

One of the few living members of the Sovereignty Commission, Betty Long, 69, said today that she, too, was pleased that the files had been opened. ''I want facts to be known instead of innuendo and rumors,'' she said, adding that she did not believe that the commission had been involved in murder or other acts of violence. ''At the time, everyone in the state was gung-ho to keep things segregated and that was tied in with the idea of the communists taking over. It's something I wish had never happened.''

For those who have waited for decades to see what information the state had collected about them, their family members and their friends, the day provided a long-awaited moment of revelation and relief.

''Twenty-one years is a long time to wait to see what is in here,'' said Ellie J. Dahmer, clutching a packet containing the file on her husband, Vernon Dahmer, who was shot to death in 1966 while fending off a Ku Klux Klan firebomb attack on his house in Hattiesburg.

Mrs. Dahmer, who spoke outside the archives building in front of a memorial to the Confederate dead, said she hoped that her husband's file may help prosecutors retry Sam Bowers, an Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan who was acquitted in 1968 of ordering the firebombing. That trial, for arson, ended when the jury deadlocked 11-to-1. A second trial, for murder, also ended with a deadlocked jury, this time 10-to-2.

The Clarion-Ledger published an article by Mr. Mitchell last week saying that notes taken from F.B.I. files suggest that Klan members had contacted jurors in the first case.

''When it came up 11-to-1 one time and 10-to-2 the next time, we thought something might be wrong, but we didn't have any way of proving it,'' Mrs. Dahmer said. ''It shows what kind of state we lived in, what kind of environment there was, what they really thought of black people.''

A review of Mr. Dahmer's file today revealed no evidence of Sovereignty Commission involvement in Mr. Bowers's trials.

The commission files also show that the commission's director, Erle Johnston Jr., ordered one of its investigators, A. L. Hopkins, to look into the facts surrounding the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers -- Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney.

Mr. Hopkins reported first that some of the local law enforcement officers on the case had assured him that they were working hard to solve it. But by his last report he was noting that some of the officers had themselves been arrested and charged in the deaths and were headed for trial. back to top >>

How Mississippi Slashed Its Prison Population and Embraced Criminal Justice Reform
By Colleen Curry

September 23, 2015 VICE is looking inside America's prison system in the week leading up to our Special Report with President Obama for HBO. Tune in Sunday, Sept. 27 at 9 PM EST to see his historic first-ever presidential visit to a federal prison.

If Mississippi were a country, two years ago it would have had the second highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world. The state's conservative politicians spent years increasing sentences for offenders and decreasing parole, a tough-on-crime double-whammy that kept landing more and more people behind bars — until last year, when legislators finally came to their senses.

Mississippi lawmakers coalesced around a set of complex criminal justice system reforms in 2014, leading to a dramatic 15 percent reduction in the size of the state's prison population over the course of one year, according to numbers released recently by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The next closest state was Vermont, which saw a decline of less than 5 percent. Though Mississippi's incarceration rate remains the fifth highest nationwide, the recent progress is being hailed as a model for how liberal and conservatives can agree on prison reforms.

In 2013, the state's leadership — including the lieutenant governor, the senate president, and the speaker of the house — requested a grant and assistance from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), a collaboration between the Department of Justice and the Pew Charitable Trusts, to help analyze criminal justice data and research possible reforms and proposals to take to the legislature.

In the ensuing 18 months, a task force of legislators and officials from the criminal justice system assembled by the state's governor worked with the JRI to evaluate what worked and what didn't. The process involved studying admission numbers, sentence lengths, recidivism rates, and data about prison programs, according to Zoë Towns, a manager at Pew's Public Safety Performance Project who oversaw much of the JRI work in Mississippi.

"There was a lot of negotiation up front, figuring out where the needs and the research met the political appetite," Towns said, noting that Mississippi's prison population was massive and still growing when the JRI begin its work. "Their shift was pretty massive. They took on everything, and had complicated and hard conversations for them. There was a fair amount of opposition, but the leadership stayed pretty strong."

The governor touted the $266 million in savings the new policies are projected to create over the next decade, a talking point that was echoed by many other state legislators. Others, however, said the cost reductions were merely a way for conservative politicians to drum up support for reforms that they truly believe are a better way forward for the state.

'Their shift was pretty massive. They took on everything, and had complicated and hard conversations for them.'

"Fiscal savings alone aren't going to change the hearts and minds of people immediately," Brian Elderbroom, a senior research associate at the Justice Policy Center of the Urban Institute said. "There's something else going on. There's more and more evidence that we're getting diminishing returns for our current incarceration rates and we can do more for less by reducing incarceration and reinvesting those savings into reducing recidivism and investing in ways to build communities rather than break them down."

Pastor CJ Rhodes from the group Clergy for Prison Reform said that it was a coalition of groups — including those interested in the faith, labor, and financial aspects of criminal justice — that came together to push for change by "raising moral and ethical question about what is the system like and why is it rigged against people."

The proposals that were eventually passed in a sweeping state bill in the spring of 2014 that changed sentencing recommendations for offenders, including shortening the sentences for many property and drug crimes. 

Research shows that nonviolent offenders who stay in their communities have lower recidivism rates than people who are jailed for the long term, so the state increased supervision of parolees in their communities, while also implementing new rules to increase the number of inmates freed on parole. Technical rehabilitation centers were established to house parolees who violate the terms of their release for up to 90 days as punishment for failed drug tests and other violations, an improvement over sending offenders back to prison for years.

Criminal justice reformers call these types of changes "low hanging fruit" — policies that most states can enact without too much political backlash. Elderbroom said Mississippi may still have other low-hanging options to further reduce its prison population, but future cuts will likely require changing the sentencing policies for violent offenders, which can be politically difficult.

"Mississippi is a really strong example that if you want to significantly reduce the prison population you're going to have to tackle a pretty wide range of the parts of the system," Elderbroom said.

Mississippi isn't the only southern state enacting criminal justice reforms. Alabama, Georgia, and Texas all have high incarceration rates compared to the national average, but each state has engaged with the JRI in recent years.

"What Mississippi has done is consistent with what we see happening throughout the south and nationally, which is a reconsideration of flawed policy, and they've had the courage to address it," said Will Harrell of the American Civil Liberties Union Southern Regional Policy Counsel.

Elderbroom cautioned that Mississippi's turnaround appears so impressive partly because from 2002 to 2012, the state increased the average sentence length by 28 percent, with nearly half of inmates locked up for nonviolent offenses. "The bottom line is that these states have adopted policies over the last few decades that send more people to prison and keep them there for longer and the reforms we're now seeing in some of these states are a step in the right direction, but a lot of room remains to reduce incarceration levels," he said.

"Looking at the BJS report, [Mississippi] stands out like a sore thumb," Elderbroom continued. "The reductions they achieved this year are on a scale that only California has seen in last few years. That's really exciting. I think we hopefully will see more and more states willing to do what they did. At the same time it's important to remember that Mississippi still has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world [and] we can celebrate positive gains where they happen, but at the same time remember they still have high incarceration rates."

Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story said Mississippi passed new legislation aimed at preventing habitual offenders from being imprisoned for life. That measure was proposed but not approved by the state legislature. back to top >>

Why it’s Hard to be a Lifer Who’s Getting Out of Prison

After 34 years inside, sometimes you never feel free.

Confessions of a Grand Juror

This article was published in collaboration with Vice.

It’s an unseasonably warm, sunny November day, and Greg Diatchenko is sitting in the visiting room of the Boston Pre-Release Center, four weeks from a moment that was never supposed to happen. On December 7, 34 years after he was sentenced to life without parole for a murder he committed at 17, Diatchenko’s mother will pick him up in her car and drive him home.

For more than three decades, he tried not to think about his death in prison, a certainty that would eventually arrive. He stayed focused on his job at the prison’s plumbing shop, on his schoolwork for the degree he earned from Boston University, on the Buddhist sangha and other groups he became involved with behind the walls. He got older. Then the Supreme Court handed down Miller v. Alabama in 2012, a ruling that laid the groundwork for his own case, Diatchenko v. District Attorney, which in 2013 outlawed juvenile life without parole in Massachusetts. Then there was the parole hearing he was suddenly eligible for; the court rulings were so new, no one knew what to expect. And then, grace—“parole is granted after 12 months in lower security…during which time Gregory Diatchenko must maintain good conduct and comply with all DOC expectations for programs, activities, and employment.”

He’ll be on parole for the remainder of his sentence—which, in Greg’s case, is the rest of his life.

Almost a year ago, he was transferred from MCI-Norfolk, the medium-security prison where he spent the last several decades, and the countdown began. Now he rides the bus to and from his work-release job at a Panera Bread in a Boston suburb, where he clears tables and makes sandwiches.

As his release date approaches, Diatchenko’s excitement and anticipation have increasingly been shadowed by uneasiness and anxiety—a little depression, even. He finds himself chasing away bad thoughts more often now, worrying over his future. What follows is his account of what it’s like to get ready for your release after thinking prison was the place your life would end.

I get on a bus, I thought everyone was going to look at me and go, “Oh! He’s a convict,” “Oh, he’s in prison.” And it’s not like that. People don’t know you. They don’t know your history or who you are or where you’re from.

I have an itinerary I follow every day. I’m not supposed to stray from it, and I don’t. We’re not allowed to go in stores. We’re not supposed to go in Dunkin Donuts and get a coffee or nothing like that. You go straight to work and come back. There are things I can’t do. I can’t even strike up a conversation with a woman that I see that I’m attracted to. I can, but I don’t want to, because I’m still in prison. Last night, there’s a woman sitting there with her computer—everybody brings computers into Panera Bread. I don’t have a cell phone so I couldn’t give my number, and I don’t have an address yet.

Where do you live?

Oh, I live at the Pre-Release Center.

Oh, that’s good. That’s a good way to start up a conversation.

When I get out, my main thing is to set up some medical appointments. Dental—my teeth are terrible. My mouth hurts so bad. It’s been uncomfortable like this for 15 years. It’s like a lion with a thorn stuck in its paw.

I’m going to be looking for a job at Boston University. I was told to go on the BU website and check on what jobs I might like to do. They said I might have to start low. Everybody’s telling me, you’re coming out of prison with a degree, you have qualifications. Some jobs people don’t want but maybe you can take it. Get your foot in the door.

After 34 years, I only have like $600 in my account; I was making $5 a day at Norfolk. But you spend that. You want to eat. You want to have coffee. You want to buy shampoo and toothpaste. You could split your money, your earnings, 50/50 in your savings and personal account. But lifers don’t have to. What are you going to save money for? You don’t save money when you’re doing a death sentence. I’m fortunate that people are there to help me, show me: This is how you fill out an income tax return. You want to get a car? This is the paperwork. I’ve never done any of that stuff before.

I wonder how I’ll be accepted outside. When they find out where I’m from, and my past. I have that blemish on me. Once a prisoner, that’s there forever. No matter what you do, no matter how good you do. It’s just always there.

I don’t know if my lifetime parole is going to be a battle with the parole officer. I’ve heard horror stories. Some people had parole officers that were all over them all the time. So I’m going out there after all these years and I really don’t know what to expect. My mother said—we were actually arguing about it out here—“Look at Greg, he’s getting out, he doesn’t even smile like he’s excited about it.” And I said, “What do you want me to do? I’m going home. OK, I’m happy about it.”

But I’m not just coming home and everything’s hunky dory. Your 17-year-old son ain’t coming home—I’m 51.

I’m under the thumb of the parole board. I’m going out to society not knowing how long I’m going to be free. I could be out there, have a house all built up, my job, a truck out in my driveway, and one or two children, little ones running around, and all of a sudden I’m snatched up and sent behind the walls for something stupid. I’ve seen some parole violations for some of the pettiest things. If you don’t like me, and you live down the street, and you don’t want me on your street, you call the cops, and say: Listen, my neighbor just threatened to punch my face in. His word against mine. I ain’t never said boo to that person. Cuff up. Parole violation.

I’m leaving a lot of good guys behind. I remember when I left Norfolk, it was weird. I was in that prison for about 29 years. I knew a lot of lifers, I mostly hung around with lifers. There were guys up there who were just as deserving, if not more so, than me, for a second chance in life. Guys with three, four, and five decades in prison. It’s sad, because they were out in lower security getting furloughs, before Willie Horton. And they’re not going anywhere. Here I am, I had this opportunity, this blessing. This court ruling that opened the door for me. I feel guilty. I walked out that door, and these guys that were so sad to see me go—I can’t even send Christmas cards to those people. As a parolee, we’re not allowed to associate with convicted felons or ex-felons.

If this [court ruling] never happened, we wouldn’t even be talking right now. I’d be at Norfolk. Working in the plumbing shop. Going to work every day and just doing my thing. Living. Existing. Waiting to die.

When you’re in prison, at the end of the day, when it’s nice and quiet, you’re laying there at 10:00 after the count, a lot of thoughts are running through your head. At the Lifers Group, once a year they read off all the lifers that died in prison over the years. AIDS, cancer, diabetes, suicide. Murder. That list is so long. The board of directors would stand up and they’d go around and they’d each read five names and go around and around. Most of them I knew, even the ones that were in other prisons, because we’ve been around together for years and years. All these lifers are standing there for a moment of silence, and what’s going through their head? They’re probably saying, One day I’ll be on that list.

Even though I’m out, if they find out that I die outside, they’ll put me on the list as a lifer that died. I’m still a lifer.

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