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Investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell speaks to members of the Chattanooga Bar Association Wednesday inside the Read House's Silver Ballroom.
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Civil rights cold cases

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The case against Byron de la Beckwith had been closed for decades when sources in Mississippi began leaking secret files to Jerry Mitchell.

The files from the state's Sovereignty Commission showed that high-ranking members of the Mississippi government assisted Beckwith's defense against charges that he assassinated NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers in June 1963. And their strategy had worked, Mitchell said: The two previous murder trials against Beckwith, a former Ku Klux Klan member, ended in mistrials with all-white juries.

And then Mitchell, a journalist with the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, published a report about it on Oct. 1, 1989. Shortly after, prosecutors in Mississippi secured indictments against Beckwith using new evidence, and he was convicted in 1994. Beckwith later died in prison in 2001 at the age of 80.

"When the word 'guilty' rang out, you could hear these waves of joy as they cascaded down the hall," said Mitchell, who spoke Wednesday to the Chattanooga Bar Association as part of its annual Law Day. "And I just felt chills because the impossible had suddenly become possible."

Mitchell's work, which has helped bring other prosecutions against former Klan members who previously escaped incarceration, was fitting for the bar association's theme: "Free speech, free press, free society." He has since started a new nonprofit, the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, and has a book coming out in 2020 about his pursuit of civil rights cold cases, "Race Against Time."

"He has served for over 30 years as an investigative reporter and has truly made a difference, and I think is a very appropriate speaker for Law Day this year," said Chattanooga attorney Steve Jacoway, the bar association's president.

When Beckwith was arrested in 1990, he was living on Signal Mountain with his wife, a retired nurse. During his reporting, Mitchell said he had driven to the top of the mountain and spoken with him for six hours. When it was time to leave, Mitchell said, Beckwith told him that if he wrote bad things about white Christians, God would punish him — and other people would, too. At that point, Mitchell elected not to eat the sandwich Beckwith's wife had fixed for him.

Coincidentally, it fell upon a different Chattanoogan to represent Beckwith: now-City Court Judge Russell Bean. After Beckwith's arrest, the state of Mississippi wanted to extradite the then 70-year-old man back to Mississippi to stand trial. But Beckwith insisted that he didn't kill Evers, Bean said, and they argued against the extradition order for several months by alleging that Beckwith wasn't in the state at the time of the crime. Ultimately, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled against Beckwith after hearing arguments, Bean said.

Shortly after he was appointed, Bean said, he visited Beckwith in custody: His bigotry was immediately apparent when he kneeled down on the ground and thanked God for giving him a white lawyer, as opposed to the woman of color he'd previously been appointed, Bean said. He used racist slurs on a regular basis to describe people, Bean said, so he offered him an ultimatum early on in the case.

"I said, 'Mr. Beckwith, I'm going to represent you, but I was not raised the same way you were. I really don't want you talking down anybody in front of me. If you'll do me that favor, I'll defend you the best I know how."

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.

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