William Browning, a rural Guilford County truck driver, sat in the jury box grinning broadly and quivering slightly as he fought to control his urge to laugh out loud.
Sitting in the witness chair 10 feet away, Rexford Stephenson, a Greensboro sewer worker, was telling Browning and 15 other jurors about a conversation with Communist Workers Party leader Dr. James Waller just over a year ago.
"I told him he ought to go to Russia to see what living under communism is really like," Stephenson said, adding:
"I offered to pay his fare over there, too."
Browning surrendered. He threw his head back, clapped his hands several times and submitted to a paroxysm of laughter.
On Nov. 3, 1979, less than 10 days after Stephenson and Waller talked at a sewage treatment plant, Waller was shot in the back and killed along with four of his CWP comrades during a conflict with some Ku Klux Klansmen and Nazis. It happened at a CWP-sponsored "Death to the Klan" march in a predominantly black, poverty-ridden section of Greensboro.
Stephenson said Waller, 33, a Greensboro physician, had told him the CWP needed a martyr to attract national attention and breathe life into sagging recruitment efforts. Waller and his four highly educated friends had given up promising careers for "struggles for the oppressed."
Six Klan or Nazi followers have been standing trail for 21 weeks on first-degree murder and rioting charges stemming from deaths of the five communists. Eleven other Klansmen and Nazi will be tried later.
Throughout the trail, prosecutors and the six defense lawyers have used tactics showing they recognize that juror Browning's apparent lack of sympathy for the fallen communists probably prevails on the conservative, all-white jury. The lawyers also have heard the jurors tell how they are sensitive to national attention the case has brought to this central North Carolina textile and educational center of 155,000.
The six defendants' fate now rests in the hands of the jury, which began deliberations Friday and will resume them today. Judge James M. Long has urged them to take their time with their decision, which could mean death or life imprisonment for the men. "It took more than six weeks to pick this jury and 11 weeks to present evidence," he said. "Please do not jeopardize a unanimous vote by taking an early vote."
Recognizing the jury's conservative bent, Guilford County District Attorney Michael Schlosser, 34, a diminutive exparatrooper and Vietnam veteran, and his two trial prosecutors, Rich Greeson, 38, and Jim Coman, 38, haven't tried to arouse sympathy for the victims. Instead, they have tried to overwhelm jurors and defendants with a mountain of evidence and to prove racism and "unabiding hatred" of communism drove the defendants to kill.
In sharp contrast, the defense team, led by the white-haired, flamboyant Robert Cahoon, 64, of Greensboro, has exploited the avowed patriotism of the Klan and Nazis, weaving it into an emotion-laden self-defense case.
Both sides agree the defendants, with about 35 other persons, drove to Greensboro Nov. 3, formed a motorcade, armed themselves with shotguns, rifles and pistols, and drove to the rally to confront the CWP. Epithets were exchanged, the demonstrators hit the cars with sticks, a vicious stick fight erupted, and shots rang out just before a barrage of gunfire from the defendants' ranks.
In his instructions to the jury Friday, Long said prosecution evidence indicated that two of the six defendants fired the fatal shots. He said the state's evidence indicated that defendant Klansman David Wayne Matthews, 25, a disabled ex-Marine, fired shots that could have killed Communist Workers Party members Waller, Sandy Smith, Michael Nathan and William Sampson. He said the prosecution evidence indicated defendant Klansman Jerry Paul Smith, 33, a sullen, muscular logger from Maiden, N.C., fired the shot that killed Cesar Cauce. He said defense evidence shows the men emerged from their cars at the march and fired only after communist demonstrators attacked them.
The other defendants are Klansmen Coleman Pridmore, 37, a mild-mannered Lincolnton factory worker, and Lawrence Morgan, 28, a slender factory worker; and Winston-Salem Nazis Roland Wood, 35, a sheet metal worker who talks incessantly about his faith in God, and Jack Fowler Jr., 28, a tire salesman who says he is now a "born-again Christian."
The case, which required 109 prosecution and 23 defense witnesses, is unique in North Carolina history, Schlosser said recently. He makes that claim because the jury saw and heard the shootout dozens of times, in slow motion and at regular speed -- thanks to television video and audio recordings taken by reporters covering the march.
Schlosser also was referring to the controversial role of Bernard Butkovich, an agent for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, to the hypnotism of a key prosecution witness and to the disruptions of court proceedings by widows of two slain communists.
BATF officials said Butkovich, who had infiltrated Winston-Salem Nazis, had nothing to do with the incidents of Nov. 3. He was probing a weapons case involving a Nazi member, they said. But lawyers were interested because Butkovich attended some meetings with the Nazis discussed the Greensboro trip. They met with him secretly for 90 minutes and learned he could only testify that he didn't hear anyone talk about violence. The defense didn't need him.
Winston-Salem television reporter Laura Blumenthal, who covered the march, provided some of the most dramatic testimony. The jury saw her, on videotape, explaining under hypnosis what she saw Nov. 3.
Sitting almost motionless in a trancelike state, Blumenthal told with gradually increasing tension of terror, sounds of agony, endless blasts of gunfire and a momentary personal resignation to death. Both sides said she helped their cases, but she gave little new information.
The courtroom disruptions occurred last August when two of the widows, Martha Nathan and Floris Cauce, both of Durham, screamed "murderers" at the defendants and called the trial a "sham." The staid and methodical Judge Long ordered Nathan bound and gagged and both sent to jail for 30 days for contempt of court.
The two women and eight other CWP supporters saw the shootings, but have refused to cooperate with the prosecution. They have defied subpoenas to testify. Long held one in contempt of court and sent him to jail for 30 days.
In contrast to the CWP, the defendants and the rugged-looking men and women who testified for them acted like models of respect for the court. They sprinkled their testimony liberally with folk wisdom, descriptive slang, atrocious grammar and down-home humor. Their rural, unpretentious manner fit nicely into patriotic theme of the defendants' self-defense strategy.
But Greeson and Coman, in their vigorous cross-examinations, caught the defendants in numerous contradictions and began trying to prove race and hatred motivated them. For example, defendant Matthews used the term "nigger" about 30 times during a 45-minute police interview, testimony showed. Also, a jailer testified Matthews told him "I only got three of them." Matthews coldly confirmed the testimony, but said he was referring to "niggers" who were shooting at him. All but one of the victims were white.