8 Liable in Klan Killing at Rally : Nazis, Policemen Cited in Leftist’s ’79 Death
A federal jury Friday found six Ku Klux Klansmen and Nazis and two Greensboro police officers liable in the shooting death of a leftist demonstrator and the beating of two others at a bloody 1979 “Death to the Klan” rally in which five persons died.
The verdict was the first adverse decision for the defendants, tried earlier on charges of murder and violating the civil rights of the demonstrators. But the jury dismissed conspiracy claims against the 45 defendants in the $48-million civil suit.
U.S. District Judge Robert Merhige told the six-member jury to return today to decide the amount of damages to be paid by those held liable in the death of Dr. Michael Nathan and the beatings of Nathan and survivors Paul Bermanzohn and Tom Clark.
The verdict was reached after 4 1/2 hours of deliberations Thursday and seven hours Friday. The jury heard 101 witnesses in the 13-week trial stemming from the Communist Workers Party rally on Nov. 3, 1979, in Greensboro.
Nathan was not a member of the party, but the other four who died--William Sampson, James Waller, Cesar Cauce and Sandy Smith--were.
Nathan’s wife, Martha, sat silently, with her head bowed, as the jury decision was announced by George E. Pope, the only black on the two-man, four-woman jury.
“All of us who suffered through the Nov. 3 klan-Nazi attack--all of us are still haunted by the memories of the attack,” she said before the decision was announced.
Earlier Friday, jurors told Merhige that the case had them stumped. He ordered them to continue deliberating, saying: “Let’s not give up at this early stage.”
In two previous trials, all-white juries acquitted the klansmen and Nazis on state murder and federal civil rights charges.
Defense attorneys in all three trials said the klansmen and Nazis fired in self-defense. They contended that the demonstrators lured klansmen and Nazis to the rally for a fight that they believed would build the party and accused the plaintiffs of lying in the lawsuit to win $48 million.
The 16 plaintiffs in the lawsuit--relatives of the dead and survivors of the rally--contended that the defendants conspired to deprive them of their civil rights by disrupting the rally or failing to prevent the confrontation, then covering up their involvement.
A klansman who was a paid informer for the Greensboro Police Department, Eddie Dawson, testified that he warned the police at least two hours before the killings that armed klansmen and Nazis were going to the rally. But police tactical squads assigned to protect the demonstrators were allowed to leave early for lunch.
No Officers on Scene
Despite Dawson’s warning, no uniformed police officers were on the scene until after the gunfire had ended and the klansmen and Nazis had begun their getaway.
Dawson also showed up at the rally in a pickup truck at the head of the nine-vehicle klan-Nazi caravan. “You communist son of a bitch,” he cried to one of the demonstrators. “You asked for the klan. Here they are.”
Dawson and another man in the pickup, Nazi Mark Sherer, were among those found liable for Nathan’s death. Sherer admitted firing the first shot in the melee--a warning blast into the air.
Dawson appeared flabbergasted at the jury’s decision.
“How the hell do I get involved in wrongful death?” he asked.
Others Found Liable
Also found liable in Nathan’s death were klansmen David Wayne Matthews and Jerry Paul Smith; Nazi Roland Wayne Wood; former Nazi Jack Fowler; Greensboro Police Lt. P. W. Spoon, and Greensboro Police Detective J. H. (Rooster) Cooper.
Matthews, Smith, Wood and Fowler were also found liable in an assault on Nathan, Bermanzohn and Clark.
The defendants had included 20 klansmen and Nazis, four federal agents, 20 Greensboro police officers and other officials and the city of Greensboro.
In his instructions to the jurors, Judge Merhige urged them not to consider the political persuasions of the various factions.
“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. “Our system of justice does not allow jurors to be influenced by sympathy or prejudice.”