A federal jury gave civil rights forces a partial victory yesterday, finding two Ku Klux Klansmen, three Nazis, two police officers and a police informer liable in the wrongful death of one of five communists killed during a 1979 anti-Klan demonstration in Greensboro, N.C.
It was the first time in three trials that anyone had been found responsible for wrongdoing in the confrontation. But the survivors of the dead members of the Communist Workers Party had sought a much broader decision.
The jury, deciding a $48 million civil suit, found that the defendants were not liable for four deaths. It also rejected allegations that Klansmen, Nazis, Greensboro police and federal agents conspired to violate the civil rights of demonstrators at the Nov. 3, 1979, "Death to the Klan" rally.
The six-member jury found liability only in the death of Michael Nathan. It also found two Klansmen and two Nazis liable for assault and battery on Nathan, a 32-year-old pediatrician, and on two other injured demonstrators.
Jurors were to meet today to determine damages in the case.
Plantiffs had asked $3.9 million in damages for the death of Nathan; $2 million for injuries suffered by Paul Bermanzohn, who is still partially paralyzed from head wounds, and $102,000 for Tom Clarke, who received multiple gunshot wounds during the shootout near a black housing project.
The verdict came after 11 1/2 hours of deliberation in a federal district court in Winston-Salem, N.C.
A total of 101 witnesses testified in the 13-week trial, which plaintiffs called their "last chance for justice." Two criminal trials had ended in acquittal.
Earlier in the day, the jurors told U.S. District Court Judge Robert H. Merhige Jr. that they could agree on only one of eight counts in the case, but the judge told them to keep working.
"This case ought not to be decided because somebody is a member of the Communist Party or the Klan or the Nazi Party," Merhige said in instructing the jury. "Our system of justice does not allow jurors to be influenced by sympathy or prejudice."
The controversial case had attracted widespread national attention among civil rights groups outraged by the failure of state and federal prosecutors to win convictions in the two criminal trials.
Yesterday's decision left lawyers confused.
"It's a very difficult decision to understand or explain," said Carolyn McAllaster, a lawyer for the Greensboro Civil Rights Fund. "We're very pleased that we have finally won some victories, but disappointed that we didn't receive total justice."
"It's a tremendous victory that a North Carolina jury found against North Carolina policemen," said Andrea Burnstein, speaking for the fund. "However, the fact that only certain plaintiffs were found for can be only attributed to racial or political prejudice."
Sixteen plaintiffs brought the suit. The three whom the jury, which included one black, found eligible for damages were white.
Nathan was the only one of the five killed who wasn't a member of the Communists Workers Party when he was shot. He joined the party on his deathbed. Several others who died during the shootout carried firearms.
No policemen were present at the site of the confrontation, despite evidence indicating that Greensboro police knew both sides were armed and spoiling for a fight.
Found liable for Nathan's death were Edward Dawson, a Greensboro police officer who posed as a Klan member and led a caravan of cars that disrupted anti-Klan demonstrators as they prepared for a march; Greensboro police detective J.H. (Rooster) Cooper, Dawson's "control agent"; Lt. P.W. Spoon, who was in charge of police protection at the march, and five defendants who appeared prominently on videotapes of the confrontation.
They were Klansmen David Wayne Matthews and Jerry Paul Smith; Nazi Roland Wayne Wood, who wore a T-shirt to the trial that said "Eat Lead, You Lousy Red"; former Nazi Jack Fowler, and Nazi Mark Sherer.
Defense lawyers said demonstrators lured klansmen and Nazis to the anti-Klan rally in an attempt to attract media attention and build party membership.