JACKSON – (AP) A black former prisoner filed a lawsuit Monday that claims he was slandered and defamed by reputed Ku Klux Klansman Edgar Ray Killen and Killen’s wife and lawyer over statements related to a land transfer and book and movie rights.
James Stern, a black man who was serving time last year in the same Mississippi prison as Killen, claims Killen confessed to him to participating in civil rights killings, then signed over his power of attorney, land rights and book and movie rights.
Stern was in prison for mail fraud and says he and Killen were cellmates from August 2010 to November 2011 at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. Mississippi Department of Corrections spokeswoman Tara Booth has said Stern and Killen were in individual cells, but they were close to one another.
Stern has been shopping around for book and movie deals about Killen. Killen is serving 60 years for manslaughter related to the 1964 deaths of three civil rights workers in what became known as the “Mississippi Burning” case.
Stern announced last week that Killen “unexpectedly signed over the deed to his 40-acre property” and Stern gave it to a nonprofit organization called Racial Reconciliation, which Stern controls. Records show that Stern actually used power of attorney to transfer a half interest of the land because Killen and Killen’s brothers were partners in it, Killen’s lawyers said.
Robert Ratliff, one of Killen’s lawyers, told reporters last week that Stern had no rights to the land and that Killen is an 87-year-old man with a traumatic brain injury and that people he met in prison tried to take advantage of him.
Stern said those statements hurt his reputation. He filed a lawsuit Monday that seeks at least $6 million and claims Ratliff, Killen, and Killen’s wife defamed his character. The lawsuit was filed in Hinds County Circuit Court in Jackson with Stern acting as his own lawyer.
The lawsuit said Killen, his wife and Ratliff “have made public remarks about the plaintiff that are totally untrue, with evil malicious harmful intent to do the reputation and character of the plaintiff unrepairable harm.”
Stern told The Associated Press on Monday that he won’t pursue the lawsuit if Ratliff apologizes within one week. He also said that Killen owes Ratliff more than $13,000 and the attorney is worried that he won’t get paid without Killen’s land and book and movie rights.
Ratliff’s partner, Jon Green, said Monday that the lawsuit is frivolous and if Stern really had power of attorney over Killen’s affairs then he is legally obligated to do what is Killen’s best interest, not his own.
“If anything he was supposed to act on behalf of Edgar Ray Killen, not steal his stuff,” Green said.
Green also said that to prove defamation, Stern must show that his reputation was harmed.
“Because he has been convicted of fraud and he’s a known felon, I doubt anyone could say anything about him to lower his standing in the community,” Green said.
Stern filed a handwritten letter in Neshoba County Chancery Court in which he claims Killen gave him power of attorney. The names of two witnesses on the document belong to inmates who are both serving time for sexual battery.
Green said he strongly doubts the legitimacy of the letter that purports to transfer power of attorney, but said that even assuming it’s legitimate, it deals with control of legal matters and not property rights.
Stern has said that Killen signed over power of attorney so he could fire Ratliff, but he said he hasn’t found a lawyer to replace him.
Killen is in prison on charges related to the slayings of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, civil rights workers who were registering black voters when they were abducted and killed by the Klan in 1964.
Killen, a former sawmill operator and one-time Baptist preacher, was convicted in 2005 of three counts of manslaughter. Killen has maintained his innocence.