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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 June, 2005, 04:10 GMT 05:10 UK
Mississippi defendant was in KKK
Edgar Ray Killen (in wheelchair) arrives at court
Mr Killen had previously denied membership of the KKK
The lawyer of a man accused of the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers has acknowledged for the first time that his client was a Ku Klux Klansman.

Mitch Moran said jurors should assume Edgar Ray Killen, 80, who had denied belonging to the white supremacist group, was a member at the time.

Mr Killen, who has pleaded not guilty, is the first person to face murder charges over the killings.

The trial opened on Wednesday in the Mississippi town of Philadelphia.

It is expected to last several weeks.

'God's will'

In his opening statement, defence lawyer Mr Moran told the court that Mr Killen's membership of the Ku Klux Klan did not make his client guilty of murder.

"The Klan's not on trial here. Being a member of the Klan is not on trial here," Mr Moran said.

Mr Moran denied that Mr Killen was a leader in planning the attack on Michael Schwerner, 24, Andy Goodman, 20, and James Chaney, 21.

The trio were murdered as they campaigned to register black voters.

They were abducted and killed during the night as they drove out of Philadelphia, Mississippi, and their bodies were buried at a dam.

Pulpit recruitment

Prosecutor Jim Hood told the jury that Mr Killen organised car-loads of Klansmen who pursued, killed and then buried them.

He said the court would hear testimony that Mr Killen, a Baptist minister, and other local preachers used the pulpit to recruit people to the Ku Klux Klan.

"They told them that God sanctions it," he said.

Mr Killen, who was a suspect in the original investigation but never convicted, was re-arrested after new evidence emerged.

The story of the original FBI investigation into the crime was dramatised in the 1988 film Mississippi Burning.

Watch footage of Edgar Ray Killen in court

'KKK man' accused of 1964 murders
07 Jan 05 |  Americas
Mississippi murders revisited
12 Jan 05 |  Americas

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