Six Ku Klux Klansmen and Nazis were found innocent yesterday of murdering five Communist Workers Party demonstrators in Greensboro, N.C., in 1979.
The jury deliberated for seven days before finding the four Klansmen and two Nazis innocent of multiple charges of first-degree murder and felonious rioting. The verdicts followed weeks of testimony during which the jurors watched videotapes of the fatal shootings.The tapes were made by television stations covering the communist-organized "Death to the Klan" rally a year ago on Nov. 3.
Sources said the Justice Department will review the case to determine whether federal charges should be brought against the defendants. Eleven other Klansmen and Nazis still face state charges in connection with the shootout between the two groups of extremists.
Even though Greensboro police worried last night about possible violence, the city remained calm beneath a cold drizzle. Several jurors tried to add to that calm by explaining the logic of their decision.
The jury "agonized" for a week over the verdict, said one juror who agreed to speak anonymously to soften what he saw as possible public horror over the verdict. "Politically, it is the worst verdict that could happen, but we reached it under the legal system of the United States, which doesn't try to please anybody.
"We couldn't care less about any of these three groups, the Nazis, the Cwp [Communist Workers Party] or the Klan. But we didn't go in there to judge philosophies, we went in to judge alleged criminal acts . . . and the prosecutors just didn't have enough evidence to erase a reasonable doubt."
It took the jurors 3 1/2 days to review the evidence from the 23-week trial, the longest murder trial in North Carolina history. Then, several defendants were eliminated as innocent, he said.
"We knew pretty much from the start that people were leaning toward the innocent verdict," said another juror, Robert H. Lackey, a 22-year Marine veteran and diesel mechanic instructor.
Even though a Klansman admitted on the stand to firing the first shot, what swayed the jurors most was their determination that the communists made the first aggressive act by pounding on a Klan car, said Lackey.
The jury "went for the innocent verdict because the CWP people struck the car first. That started the ball rolling. It [had] a snowball effect," Lackey said.
But another juror, who asked not to be identified, said the weight of the acoustics tests and other "technical" evidence presented by the prosecution shed little light on who fired first. "We didn't know where the first shots came from," he said.
Defendants were considered one by one. One by one, they were eliminated as innocent. "After every knot [of doubt] was untied, and everybody's conscience settled, we proceeded to vote," said on juror. The innocent verdict was reached yesterday in one vote, right after lunch. Then the jurors told the judge they had agreed.
"It was self defense based on the evidence," said one juror, who "worried more than anything about the community effect of the verdict. Those who always pay for everything, the poor people and the black people that these organizations used for pawns, didn't have anything to do with our verdict. We didn't reach our verdict to hurt them."
During the week-long deliberations, Lackey said, "there were some comments that the general public would not accept an innocent verdict. But we couldn't let that be a swaying factor. It gets down to what's just."
Lackey said had the communists agreed to testify -- rather than boycott what they called a "sham" -- "it would have been enlightening" and perhaps altered the verdict.
Nonetheless, "we know the Klan did something wrong, but two wrongs don't make a right," said Lackey. "Three wrongs don't either. How can you punish them [the Klan and Nazis] when they didn't start it?"
The deaths occurred after the Klansmen and Nazis formed a motorcade, armed themselves with shotguns, rifles and pistols and drove to the rally to confront the demonstrators. Epithets were exchanged, fights erupted and shots were fired. Within 88 seconds, according to testimony, four of the communists were dead and another six wounded. A fifth demonstrator died two days later.
The dead were Sandra Smith, 29, a textile worker and labor organizer; James C. Waller, 37, a medical school graduate and organizer in textile plants; Cesar Vinton Cauce, 25, a hospital worker; William Sampson, 31, a former Harvard Divinity School student, and Michael Roland Nathan, 33, a Durham physician.
Defense lawyers argued that the Klansmen and Nazis fired in self-defense, out of fear for their lives, and said that government evidence failed to show that any of those charged actually fired the shots that killed the victims.
"They were attacked," defense lawyer Robert Cahoon told the all-white jury. "The truth is that they were not expecting violence. They were bent on a peaceful expression of the love of their country and its flag."
Prosecutors said the Klansmen and Nazis went to the rally bent on revenge, following a clash with the communists four months earlier near Winston-Salem. f"They came to Greensboro intent on one thing and one thing only, to disrupt that rally," Assistant District Attorney James Coman said in his closing statement.
The prosecutors acknowledged during the trial that scientific evidence linked only two of the defendants to the fatal shots. But the others were guilty of murder as well, they argued, under a state law that a person participating in a riot in which a companion commits murder is also guilty of murder.
The defendants were Nazis Jack Wilson Fowler, 27, and Roland Wayne Wood, 36, and Klansmen Jerry Paul Smith, 33, Coleman Blair Pridmore, 27, Lawrence Gene Morgan, 28, and David Mathews, 24.
Five Communist Workers Party members are awaiting trial on rioting charges.
A federal review of the verdict would follow Justice Department practice in controversial, civil rights related cases. Most recently, the federal government brought charges after the acquittal of policemen in Miami in the death of a black insurance executive.
The riot attracted national attention because of the dramatic television footage, played on the television networks the day of the shootings, and because of continuing confrontations between the increasingly active Klan and the militant extremists of the left.