For the third time in five years, a jury was asked today to decide if anyone should be punished for the deaths of five communists shot during a 1979 anti-Ku Klux Klan rally in nearby Greensboro.
Klan and American Nazi Party members who participated in a shooting spree at the Nov. 3, 1979, demonstration have twice been acquitted of criminal charges in the incident.
Today, defense lawyers told a federal court jury here that their clients should not be held liable in a $48 million civil suit because they fired in self-defense after their cars were stopped by anti-Klan demonstrators who beat the cars with sticks.
Girrard Chapman, a lawyer for several Klan and Nazi members, said members of the Communist Workers Party (CWP) created "a powder-keg situation" by sponsoring a "Death to the Klan" rally and "were responsible for the losses that day."
"It was a trap. Things blew up in their face, and now they want you to give them $48 million," Chapman told a jury of five whites and one black.
Earlier, Flint Taylor, a lawyer for 16 anti-Klan demonstrators and spouses of the dead communists, told the jury, "Stand up and say to the Klan and Nazis, 'You can't do this in America.' "
During nine weeks of testimony before U.S. District Court Judge Robert H. Merhige Jr., the trial featured the same television videotapes of the 88-second gun battle and much of the same cast of political groups, government informants and law enforcement officers that appeared in the previous cases.
But the current trial differs in enough key aspects to create a genuine sense of suspense as lawyers completed closing arguments today. The case is to go to the jury of two men and four women Thursday.
For the first time, families of the dead are represented by their own attorneys, a black is on the jury, and allegations of complicity by federal and local law enforcement officials are being examined.
At issue is a $48 million civil suit brought against 13 Klansmen, seven Nazis, the federal government, the City of Greensboro, and 25 local and federal law enforcement officers. The plaintiffs allege that deaths and injuries at the rally were the result of a conspiracy among defendants to deprive members of the Communist Workers Party and their sympathizers of their civil rights.
The allegations against the city centered on why police officers were not at the confrontation, despite evidence that they knew the rival groups were armed and spoiling for a fight. Allegations against the U.S. government focused on Bernard Butkovich, a federal undercover agent who the plantiffs claim was a provocateur.
Edward Dawson, a former FBI informant, testified that Greensboro police asked him to inform on Klan, Nazi and CWP activities during the month before the rally.
Dawson said he attended three Klan meetings where plans were discussed to attend the rally, obtained a copy of the demonstrators' parade permit, kept his police superiors informed, and warned them two hours before the rally that a caravan of armed Klansmen and Nazis was forming.
Butkovich, a U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent, urged the klansmen and Nazis to take weapons to the rally, according to testimony from two leaders of the group. One Klan leader, Correll Pierce, said Butkovich told them he would want "something backing him up" if he went to the anti-Klan rally.
Butkovich was not with the Klansmen and Nazis the day of the shootout, according to the evidence. But Dawson led a nine-car caravan to a black public-housing project where anti-Klan demonstrators had gathered for their march and shouted, "You communists SOBs. You asked for the Klan. Here we are."
Dawson testified that he had expected to find "wall-to-wall police" at the site and found none. The first policemen did not appear until the shootout was over, according to testimony. Evidence indicated that shots were fired by both sides but that only Klan and Nazi bullets hit anyone.
April Wise, a former Greensboro police officer, said in a deposition that she and another officer were ordered by a police dispatcher to leave the rally staging areas shortly before the shooting began. Police officials testified that they had decided to keep a "low profile" that day and were confused about where demonstrators intended to gather, although the site was listed in a city parade permit.