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Joanna Weiss

Old crimes and old men

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / May 17, 2011

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IN THE summer of 1998, I sat in a courthouse in Hattiesburg, Miss., and watched justice delivered, 32 years late. Sam Bowers, the former imperial wizard of the Mississippi Ku Klux Klan, was finally convicted of murder — in the 1966 death of Vernon Dahmer Sr., a civil rights worker who had been helping black men register to vote.

This was one of a string of Klan cold cases finally brought to trial, and it was a strange study in the passage of time. Once, Bowers had been menacing, charismatic, sharp — the only one in his shadowy organization who was authorized to order another man’s death. Three decades had diminished him to a gray, stooped man, less frightening than bizarre. He wore a Mickey Mouse pin on his lapel. He claimed it was a militant symbol.

His coterie of foot soldiers was even more absurd. One snow-haired man named Deavors Nix approached the witness stand hooked to an oxygen tank — and provided some bitter comic relief when he said his mother came from a place called “Cracker’s Neck.’’

I thought of Bowers and Nix last week when 91-year-old John Demjanjuk was convicted, in a Munich court, of accessory to murder: 28,060 counts, one for each person who died when he was a guard at the Sobibor Nazi death camp in 1943. This was justice deferred even longer — long enough for Demjanjuk to escape to the United States, work in an Ohio auto plant, raise a family, live in a ranch house with a garden.

No one was laughing at Demjanjuk as he lay in a bed in the German courtroom, occasionally moaning in pain. But he did elicit a strange sort of sympathy, an old-old-man’s pass from the hammer of justice. He was sentenced to only five years in prison, released pending an appeal. The presiding judge said that keeping him detained, given his age and ill health, would be “disproportionate.’’

Avoid reckoning long enough, and it’s hard for people to fully acknowledge the monster you once were. In pop culture these days, the Nazis are almost as much a punchline as a threat. At the Bowers trial in Hattiesburg, the prosecutor noted that the Klan had lost its menace; when the group makes statements now, people just laugh.

Perhaps that’s why some people question whether old crimes are worth pursuing, given all of the fresh atrocities in the world. As Demjanjuk’s case proved, it is technically difficult to bring old men to trial, said Ken Bresler, an instructor in criminal justice ethics at Suffolk University. We have a statute of limitations, in part, because the quality of evidence diminishes over time.

And we have it in part due to the concept of “repose’’ — the idea that people who commit certain crimes shouldn’t have to look over their shoulders forever. But there is no statute of limitations on murder, or on war crimes. It’s only the details of the punishment that change.

In Hattiesburg, Bowers wasn’t spared; he was swiftly sentenced to life. But an hour before the jury returned its verdict, Dahmer’s son told me that the trial itself was the most important thing.

Bowers had faced four mistrials in the ’60s, in front of all-white juries. This time, the jury was multiracial, the evidence assembled carefully, collected by journalists, prosecutors, and civil rights workers who believed in the cause Dahmer had died for. A 52-year-old man — a teenage errand boy for Bowers at the time of the murder — had agreed to testify at last. He was once afraid to speak, but not anymore. Bowers must have known that his own life’s work had failed.

Maybe in the Demjanjuk case, too, the punishment matters less than the fact that his conviction was relentlessly pursued. Demjanjuk seems lucid enough to know that justice has caught up with him at last, that the world now acknowledges what he has done. That’s hardly a laughing matter. But it’s enough to make you smile.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com