The Mississippi assistant district attorney who prosecuted a 26-year-old murder case debuts with an absorbing tale of murder, hatemongering, and long-overdue justice.
In June 1963, a white supremacist named Byron De La Beckwith shot and killed civil-rights organizer Medgar Evers at the door of his Jackson, Mississippi, home. Beckwith was swiftly arrested and tried, but an all-white jury ignored what DeLaughter presents as solid material evidence of his guilt and acquitted him. A second jury, convened in the wake of a national outcry, also set Beckwith free. Assigned in 1989 to reopen the case, following a series of newspaper articles that raised the possibility of jury tampering, DeLaughter found himself up against considerable reluctance on the part of many of his fellow white Mississippians to examine their state’s troubled recent past. Lacking substantial new evidence at the beginning of his inquiry, DeLaughter turned to old files and interviewed detectives and witnesses involved in the original prosecution. He painstakingly reassembled the case against Beckwith, whom he calls “crazier than a shit-house rat,” and cast sufficient doubt on the quality of the earlier juries (one contained an active member of the KKK) to secure an indictment for Beckwith’s arrest and retrial. The author’s account of the proceedings reveals a defiant defendant as his own worst enemy. Although DeLaughter sometimes sounds as if he’s working from the pages of To Kill a Mockingbird (“It is never too late for that which is right, just, and brings honor to one’s home state, to the human race itself”), and although his narrative is at the outset somewhat disorganized, in the end it develops with all the tension of a good detective novel, complete with a surprising turn of testimony worthy of a Perry Mason episode.
A solid addition to the annals of true crime—and punishment.