If a defendant is wrongfully acquitted, he is still a free man. This is a pillar of the American judicial system, even when it opposes other ideals like equality and justice. Such values were tested during the trial of Byron De La Beckwith, who murdered civil rights activist Medgar Evers on June 12th, 1963.
Beckwith was brought to justice shortly after the killing. Due to the continued presence of Jim Crow racism, this case was designed to fail. In 1964, during the first trial against Beckwith, the local prosecutor pursued the death penalty, instead of a more probable term sentence. In the Deep South, it was not until the 1990s that white men were executed for killing black men. Predictably, the first trial deadlocked into a mistrial, and so did the second. 26 years elapsed between a second mistrial in 1964, and a third trial in 1990, in which Beckwith, then 73, was sentenced to life in prison. Was this a victor’s justice?
Contemporary writing suggested that Beckwith would walk as a free man on appeal. Beckwith believed that his right to a speedy trial had been violated, twice; and that he was facing double jeopardy.
Beckwith held that the 26 years between the second mistrial and arrest for a third trial was excessive; and that the 1,100 days between the 1990 arrest and his final trial was likewise excessive.
The State had to find that a Nolo Prosequi (Decline to Prosecute) issued in 1969 was not an acquittal; nor was it permanently binding, provided that in the State of Mississippi there is no statute of limitations for murder.
To the credit of the Mississippi Supreme Court in the appeal process, they were able to disregard the fact that Beckwith still held white supremacist views, and ignore the weight of social and political implications during the third trial and appeal in the early 1990’s.
By this time, the South had entered the “tough on crime” era. Racial favoritism gave way to a firm but outwardly fair hand. Any leeway given to Beckwith could be used by a future defendant brought to justice in a “cold case”. Beckwith, in poor health, spent the last seven years of his life in prison. His futile appeal, Beckwith vs. State of Mississippi, is often cited today in Fifth and Sixth amendment cases.
In 2009, a naval supply ship, USNS Medgar Evers (T-AKE 13), was named by then-Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus. A social progressive, he was sitting governor of Mississippi at the beginning of Beckwith’s third trial.