A federal court jury yesterday awarded $711,937.50 in damages to seven community activists and a local peace organization that had sued FBI agents and D.C. police for violating their constitutional rights with political dirty tricks and surveillance during Washington's turbulent protest era a decade ago.
The jury's decision, reached after more than 25 hours of deliberation, affirmed the activists' accusations that federal agents and police spied on antiwar and community groups, circulated false information to disrupt them and attempted to instigate violence to discredit their political activities.
The Justice Department, which represented the FBI agents in the case, is expected to appeal the decision. The D.C. Corporation Counsel's office, which defended the police officers and the city, was considering an appeal last night.
The case focused on the FBI operation known as COINTELPRO, a counterintelligence program designed to splinter so-called New Left groups during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The activists also contended that officials of the D.C. police intelligence division dispatched informants to collect information on political groups and disrupt demonstrations.
The jury awarded totals of $93,750 each in damages to four of the activists and the peace group, and $81,062.50 to each of the other three activists. The activists included Tina Hobson, widow of former D.C. City Councilman Julius Hobson, the Rev. David Eaton, newly elected member of the D.C. school board, and Sammie A. Abbott, mayor of Takoma Park, Md. The same award was made to the Washington Peace Center, a nonprofit group chiefly working towards diverting government defense funds to peaceful programs.
The damage awards were against five FBI agents involved in domestic intelligence investigations, as well as the D.C. government, former D.C. Police Chief Jerry V. Wilson, and six individual police intelligence officers. The jury divided responsibility for the payments among the individual defendants, with the city government paying the largest amounts -- $37,937.50 -- to each of the seven activists and the peace group.
In all, the jury assessed a total of $449,437.50 against the city and the police, and $262,500 against the five FBI agents.
The verdict was a quiet victory for the seven activists, who had brought the lawsuit to U.S. District Court here more than five years ago.
"I feel that it's a marvelous victory to have confirmed what I knew all along -- that it was the police and the FBI that were violating the law and not Julius Hobson," Tina Hobson said after the verdict was returned. Julius Hobson, who had been the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, died in 1977.
"Too bad he can't be in court; he'd love it," Tina Hobson said of her late husband, a longtime political activist in Washington.
In addition to Hobson, Eaton and Abbott, the other plaintiffs in the lawsuit were: Abe Bloom, chairman of the Washington Area Peace Action Coalition during the Vietnam war period; Arthur Waskow, a former fellow at the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies here; Richard Pollock, active in the peace movement as a college student a decade ago, and Reginald H. Booker a member of the Black United Front and a founder of a local anti-freeway organization.
The jury of three men and three women awarded $81,062.50 each to Booker, Hobson and Eaton. The remaining four activists and the Peace Group received the higher amount. The difference in the figures resulted from a decision by the jury not to award damages to Booker, Hobson and Eaton for the activities of five of the D.C. police intelligence officers.
Part of the award to the seven activists and the peace group represented punitive damages against all five FBI agents and against former police chief Wilson and former D.C. police intelligence branch chief Thomas J. Herlihy. Juries award such damages to punish defendants for their activities. The bulk of the awards in yesterday's case, however, were designated by the jury as damages intended to compensate the activists for violation of the their constitutional rights.
The activists were represented by attorneys Anne Pilsbury, J.E. McNeil and Daniel Schember. During a three-week trial before Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer, the lawyers contended that the activities of the law enforcement officers violated their clients' constitutional rights to free speech, assembly and privacy.
The jury declined to award damages to another group, Washington Area Women Strike for Peace, which had organized protests against the Vietnam War.