Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Never Too Late: A Prosecutor's Story of Justice in the Medgar Evers Case, by Bobby DeLaughter

Never Too Late: A Prosecutor's Story of Justice in the Medgar Evers Case (Scribner, 2001), Bobby DeLaughter’s account of his prosecution of Byron de la Beckwith for his murder in 1963 of civil rights leader Medgar Evers explains how prosecutors meticulously reconstruct the details of the case thirty years after two trials ended in hung juries. It is notable for its portrait of Beckwith himself, whose racism and anarchistic propensity towards violence and murder were not merely monstrous but pathological. Beckwith admitted his responsibility for the murder of Evers to numerous individuals after the two hung jury trials. He was convicted in 1972 of the attempted murder of a Jewish leader in New Orleans, for which he spent three years in jail, and he bragged of involvement in other acts of violence and terror. De la Beckwith (known to friends as “Delay”) believed in the sacred virtues of white Christianity. He favored the elimination of nonwhites—especially Jews and African Americans—by whatever means possible. The rhetoric by which he expressed his views was essentially the same as that of the Nazis. De la Beckwith was the tip of a cultural iceberg that, one hopes, is rapidly melting.

DeLaughter sees his successful prosecution of Beckwith as evidence that Mississippi and the South have shed (to some extent) the racist heritage of the past. He also saw his victory in the case as the result of divine providence. That I doubt. It was the result of persistence, hard work, and the changing demographics of Mississippi society—the first two trials of Beckwith were heard by juries of all white males. The third trial jury included eight African American jurors, four whites, a mix of men and women. If divine providence had a role to play, Evers would not have been murdered to begin with.

One may be tempted to think that DeLaughter over-estimates the significance of his successful prosecution of Beckwith. Yet this book makes clear that DeLaughter’s persistence, hard work, and commitment to the trial were crucial to the outcome. He wasn’t simply a man who happened to be in the right place at the right time. He recognized the injustice in the fact that thirty years after the death of Evers, and after admitting to the crime on a number of occasions, Beckwith still walked and breathed a free man. Thanks to DeLaughter and his associates, and to a state that had changed, Beckwith was convicted and died in prison.

In an afterword, DeLaughter discusses his unsuccessful campaign for judge. He lost by a 2 to 1 margin. He felt many whites voted against him out of resentment over his prosecution of Beckwith. Some voters may have resented the negative attention the film Ghosts of Mississippi brought to the area—the film was a docudrama about DeLaughter’s prosecution of Beckwith. He is unhappy too that many African Americans did not vote in the election—he felt he had put himself and his career on the line in support of their cause and that they should have acknowledged his efforts by supporting him. Elections and the reasons why people do and do not vote are more complex and conflicted that DeLaughter would have it.

The narrative ends with DeLaughter’s appointment as a county court judge in 1999. Sadly, in 2008 DeLaughter was charged with five counts of bribery and suspended from the bench. He pleaded not guilty to these charges but eventually pleaded guilty to a count of obstruction of justice and was sentenced to eighteen months in federal prison.

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