For weeks, the front-porch gossip around Philadelphia, Miss., was that Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey and Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, a pair of beefy upholders of backwater Southern justice, would soon be indicted by a fed eral grand jury in Biloxi, Miss., investigating civil rights abuses in Mississippi. Sure enough, last week they were.
The most important case under investigation by the grand jury (22 whites, one Negro) was the murder of three young civil rights workers: New Yorkers Michael Schwerner, 24, and Andrew Goodman, 20, and Meridian, Miss., Negro James Chaney, 21. The three disappeared on June 21 after Cecil Price arrested them near Philadelphia on a charge of speeding. Six weeks later their bodies were dug up from a nearby farmer's dam; all had been shot to death.
The grand jury could not indict anyone for murder, which is a state, not a federal, crime. But the jury could look into violations of the victims' civil rights under federal laws. In secret sessions over two weeks, the jurors summoned some 125 witnessesincluding FBI men, Philadelphia Negroes, a bootlegger, a missionary Baptist preacher, Sheriff Rainey and a smirking Cecil Price, who appeared to testify with a card on his coat proclaiming, "Regardless of what you have heard or seen about me, I'm innocent."
When the jury handed down indictments late last week, the murders were not mentioned, although the jury is to reconvene Oct. 21, and federal officials made it clear the case is by no means closed. Rainey, Price and three other Neshoba countians, including two Philadelphia city cops, were arraigned on two counts of depriving local Negroes of their rights by "arresting, incarcerating and detaining" them. In one case, Rainey, Price & Co. were accused of "striking, beating and whipping" a Negro, in another of clubbing a Negro with a blunt instrument. The maximum penalty on each count is one year in prison and a $1,000 fine.