A U.S. District Court jury awarded former antipoverty workers Alan and Margaret McSurely $1.6 million in damages yesterday in a suit against the late U.S. senator John McClellan, two of his staff and a rural Kentucky prosecutor.
The ruling marked the latest milestone in a protracted legal battle that began when armed sheriff's deputies 15 years ago raided the McSurelys' Pikeville, Ky., home on a warrant charging the couple with sedition: trying to overthrow the governments of Kentucky and Pike County.
Kentucky officials later turned over some of the documents seized at the home to a Senate subcommittee chaired by McClellan that was investigating the causes of urban disorders in the mid-1960s. Among the items seized were love letters to Margaret McSurely from the late columnist Drew Pearson, for whom she worked in the early 1960s before she was married.
Shortly after the McSurelys spent a week in a Kentucky jail, a federal court ruled the state sedition law and the search unconstitutional. But the couple was tried and convicted of contempt of Congress in 1970 when they refused to turn over more documents to the subcommittee.
That conviction was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals here because the documents the subcommittee demanded were the products of an illegal search.
The couple, now 46, filed suit 13 years ago against the prosecutor, Thomas B. Ratliff, McLellan, and two aides, who also died during the course of the litigation. The couple claimed they underwent "intense mental and emotional pain and suffering" because of the raid and the subsequent contempt conviction.
The suit was delayed for years while the Justice Department, which represented the federal officials, challenged the couple's right to sue, arguing that the late senator and his aides were carrying out their official duties and therefore were immune from civil lawsuits.
That challenge went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which, in 1978, let stand a U.S. Court of Appeals decision that the federal officials could be sued.
The six-member jury, which deliberated 2 1/2 days after the conclusion of a six-week trial, found that Ratliff, McClellan and the two aides violated the couple's First Amendment rights of free speech and their right to privacy and violated Fourth Amendment prohibitions against illegal searches.
The jury assessed the bulk of the damages against Ratliff, who went on the raid with the deputies. Ratliff, now a millionaire coal-mine operator, was assessed $1.2 million, including $920,000 in punitive damages. McClellan's estate was assessed $218,260 in compensatory damages, while the estates of the two Senate aides were assessed nearly $190,000.
The McSurelys went to Pike County in 1967 to organize residents for political action against the coal-mine operators of the region. They left in late 1968, after someone threw several sticks of dynamite at their home, causing an explosion that showered them and their year-old child with debris. Alan McSurely is now a letter carrier in Washington. Margaret Herring-McSurely is a secretary at a local hospital. They were divorced recently.
After the verdict, the couple said they never gave up hope that they would someday be successful in the legal battle, during which they were represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York-based public interest law firm.
Government attorneys said they did not know whether they would appeal. Attorneys for Ratliff said they were considering an appeal but would have to discuss that with their client, who was attending the funeral of his mother-in-law when the jury returned its verdict.