An all-white jury today found a Ku Klux Klan leader from Pennsylvania guilty of violating a Virginia law against cross-burning, despite the warning of his African American lawyer that a conviction would imperil the right to free speech.
Barry Elton Black, imperial wizard of the International Keystone Knights of the KKK, was convicted of burning a cross with the intent of intimidating an individual or group. It took the six-man, six-woman jury 25 minutes to find him guilty, after which it recommended a fine of $2,500 and no jail time.
The 50-year-old defendant, whose record included seven convictions on such charges as burglary, larceny and prison escape, could have been imprisoned for five years.
His lawyer, David P. Baugh, of the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, made it clear to the jury that he did not share Black's racist beliefs. But he said the Virginia law imperils the constitutional guarantee to espouse unpopular causes.
"We're never going to be buddies, and he knows that," Baugh said, motioning toward Black, "but if I can't protect him, I can't protect anyone else."
The lawyer added that "I'm not going to tell you that the Klan doesn't scare me, but I don't have a right to live a life free of fear."
Baugh, who never shook hands with his client throughout a series of hearings and today's trial, said he will appeal the verdict and earlier rulings that upheld the constitutionality of the Virginia law, which was enacted during the Klan's heyday in the 1930s.
During the one-day trial before Carroll County Circuit Court Judge Duane E. Mink, the defense called no witnesses--not even Black, who admitted upon his arrest that he had organized the rally and cross-burning here Aug. 22. The prosecution offered three witnesses: the local sheriff, his deputy and a white woman whose trailer home adjoins the property on which a 25- to 30-foot cross was burned.
Although the prosecution had asked for jail time, William H. Hurd--special assistant to state Attorney General Mark L. Earley (R)--who was observing the trial, expressed satisfaction with the outcome. "The important thing is that the law has been upheld as constitutional and a violator has been convicted," he said.
Civil liberties groups have argued that the state's cross-burning law should be struck down. "The burning of crosses clearly is symbolic speech, which is protected by the Constitution," said Mark Potok, a spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which operates a Klanwatch from its headquarters in Montgomery, Ala.
Potok said Black heads one of about 50 Klan organizations in the nation, with a membership of less than 200. Fewer than 5,000 people belong to the various Klan organizations, according to Potok, with Black's group having chapters in seven states--Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, South Carolina, Tennessee and Washington--but none in Virginia.
Prosecutor Gregory G. Goad told the jurors that Black "has every right to be a member of the Klan, but nobody has a right to intimidate others, to stretch the freedom of speech" to that extent.
Rebecca Sechrist, the woman who testified today, said she and her family had moved into her trailer a week before the August rally. She said she and her two young children were terrified by the sight of 25 or 30 men, women and children, dressed in white robes with pointed white hoods, parading around a flaming cross.
"It's terrible to see. I sat there and cried," Sechrist said. The Klan had gotten permission to hold the rally on land owned by her husband's aunt.
Sechrist said she watched the Klan members use language over a microphone that she declined to repeat in the courtroom. "I don't use that word, the N-word," she said. One speaker suggested "using a 30-30 [rifle] to randomly shoot at blacks," she continued.
Carroll County sheriff's sergeant Richard C. Clark Jr., who arrested Black, said that during the 20-minute trip from the rally site, near the crossroads town of Cana, to the courthouse here in Hillsville, Black told him that "whites should stand up against blacks and Mexicans" who are taking the jobs of whites in the area. He said Black also bemoaned "seeing black and Mexican men holding hands with white women and walking along the sidewalks" of Cana.
During the rally, which lasted about two hours, one black family stopped their car long enough to ask Carroll County Sheriff Warren Manning what was going on, and when he told them there was a Klan rally, they hurriedly drove off.
It was the first cross-burning in memory in Carroll, which is near the North Carolina border and which, according to the 1990 census, counted 109 blacks in a population of 26,594. In adjoining Grayson County, about 8 percent of the population is black, said Walter Kyle, president of the Grayson chapter of the NAACP.
Kyle described race relations in the area as "fair," though he said tensions rose after a black man was beheaded and burned alive in Grayson two years ago. A white laborer was sentenced to life in prison in January for the crime.
Kyle said he was upset about the Klan leader being defended by a black attorney, no matter how high-minded his motives.
"I believe in free speech," said Kyle, 57, who works in a mental health facility in Hillsville. "But it's how you deliver free speech. These people were talking about taking lives."
CAPTION: Barry Elton Black, a Ku Klux Klan leader from Pennsylvania, walks into Carroll County Court House in Hillsville, Va.