Beckwith Is Convicted of Killing Medgar Evers : Verdict: The avowed white supremacist, now 73, had been tried twice before. He is sentenced to life in prison.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thirty-one years after the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, Byron De La Beckwith, the man arrested within two weeks of the murder, was found guilty Saturday and sentenced to life in prison for the crime.

A cheer went up from spectators in the courtroom gallery as the verdict was read. Beckwith's wife, Thelma, broke into sobs. But the 73-year-old avowed white supremacist showed no emotion as Hinds County Circuit Judge L. Breland Hilburn handed down the mandatory sentence.

Despite likely appeals, which a prosecutor acknowledged could keep Beckwith out of prison for the rest of his life, Myrlie Evers said the conviction fulfilled the promise she had made to her late husband to seek justice in his death.

"I have prayed for either hearing (Beckwith) say he was guilty or a jury saying he was guilty," she said after the trial.

She praised the prosecutors who "went further than they had to" in pursuit of her husband's killer.

It was she who persuaded prosecutors to reopen the case four years ago after newspaper reports revealed new evidence of jury tampering in Beckwith's two 1964 trials, which both ended in hung juries. She has been present for nearly every hearing or major development in the case since then.

She wept when the verdict was read Saturday and grasped the hand of her daughter, Reena Evers-Everett, while her eldest son, Darrell Kenyatta Evers, applauded.

After rushing from the courtroom in tears, Myrlie Evers sought a few moments of seclusion with her family. She said she wept, jumped for joy, let loose a shout and then raised her eyes to the heavens to tell her late husband: "Medgar, I've gone the last mile of the way."

She was still jubilant when she spoke to reporters. "It's been a long journey, and it's been a lonely one," she said.

Beckwith ordinarily would be eligible for parole in 10 years, but he might be eligible sooner because he remained in jail for more than a year while awaiting his most recent trial.

Beckwith's lawyers, who called repeatedly for a mistrial during the proceedings, left the court after the verdict and could not be reached for comment. An appeal, however, is widely expected.

The jury, made up of eight African Americans and four whites, deliberated for more than six hours Friday and Saturday before reaching a verdict.

The jurors, who had been chosen 140 miles north of Jackson in Panola County, were taken home by bus. Upon disembarking in front of the Panola County Courthouse, they told reporters they had agreed not to talk about the case.

"They were exhausted. They were just drained," Panola County Sheriff David Bryan said.

Evers, the 37-year-old field secretary for the NAACP, had been a highly visible crusader against segregation and for equal rights for African Americans. He was shot in the back on June 12, 1963, by a sniper hidden near his home.

An Enfield 30.06 rifle belonging to Beckwith was found hidden in a honeysuckle thicket nearby. One of Beckwith's fingerprints was on the scope, and witnesses identified his car nearby that night.

But two all-white juries were unable to reach a verdict in 1964. If Beckwith had been convicted then, he would have faced the death penalty.

"I think that justice has been done," said Dist. Atty. Ed Peters, whose aggressive and theatrical questioning of witnesses was among the dramatic highlights of the latest trial. "I'm sorry that it took so long, but I'm glad that it was done."

Assistant Dist. Atty. Bobby DeLaughter said he felt vindicated by the verdict. "Now the world knows what we have known for years," he said.

Even so, he continued to offer justification for his pursuit of a case that many Mississippians, white and black, said they considered a waste of time.

"We would've been derelict in our duty if we had not proceeded as we've proceeded," DeLaughter said, acknowledging that he, like the public, had mixed emotions about prosecuting so aged a defendant in a 30-year-old case that already had been tried twice before.

Despite criticism that he had reopened the case because of political ambitions, Peters said he did it "in spite of politics."

"We've gotten two letters of praise and hundreds of letters of condemnation," he said, adding that he was stunned by apathy in the black community.

"I was shocked and dismayed at the number of black (prospective) jurors who said that we shouldn't be prosecuting the case, that they didn't know who Medgar Evers was and what were we doing wasting money," Peters said. "That was the last reaction I expected."

Myrlie Evers said she also was concerned by the lack of awareness of Evers' importance to the state. "I'm hopeful that from this point on he would be in his rightful place in history and people could be able to know who he was, what he did and be able to relate where they are now to what he did."

Until recently there have been few memorials to Evers in Jackson. When black leaders wanted to erect a statue to his memory, it took years to raise the money, but work is now under way to turn his home into a museum.

Myrlie Evers, a retired Los Angeles commissioner of public works who now lives in Oregon, said that seeing Beckwith for the first time since the 1964 trials was a traumatic experience. But by the end of the trial, he had become "a nonentity," she said.

Darrell Evers, a Los Angeles conceptual artist who bears a strong resemblance to his father, said he attended the trial so that Beckwith could see "the face of the person he shot" in the back.

While family members said they knew Beckwith might never spend another day behind bars, Evers-Everett, who lives in Claremont, Calif., said: "I'm happy that it has been acknowledged that he did it."

During the trial, prosecutors painted Beckwith as a "bushwhacking, ambushing coward" so opposed to integration that he was willing to kill for it, and as a man so cocky that he openly bragged of the murder to people who he thought would be impressed by it.

Among the six witnesses who testified that they heard Beckwith brag of the murder was one man who said Beckwith told a meeting of Ku Klux Klan members: "Killing that nigger didn't cause me any more discomfort than our wives have when they have a baby."

While Beckwith has always denied killing Evers in his frequent interviews with the press, his conversation has been littered with racist epithets aimed at African Americans and Jews, and he suggested that he was pleased by the murder.

While he was mostly silent during his trial--he opted not to testify, his lawyers citing his waning memory and physical infirmities--he wore a Confederate flag lapel pin into the courtroom every day.

His defense consisted largely of three police officers from his hometown of Greenwood, 90 miles away, who said they saw him there the night of the shooting.

But Peters told the jury that Mississippi police departments in 1964 were composed of men who tended to share Beckwith's segregationist beliefs.

And James Holley, the only one of those witnesses to testify live in the courtroom, acknowledged that he had held strong segregationist views in the 1960s.

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