Prosecutors insist the case has nothing to do with politics and a lot to do with fire codes. Indeed, the six defendants are charged with offenses as mundane as burning waste materials without a permit.
But, because of the materials burned in a rural area of the northern San Fernando Valley on Dec. 3, 1983--three 20-foot tall wooden crosses--the talk inevitably turned to politics as the preliminary hearing began Tuesday in Los Angeles Municipal Court.
The defendants are white supremacists, including a former Ku Klux Klan grand dragon and the founder of the National Socialist Aryan Workers Party. At issue is their rally at a Kagel Canyon home to commemorate the slaying of a white Los Angeles police officer by a black man.
Apparently in an attempt to adhere to fire codes, the group had obtained a barbecue permit--required for open fires in national forests. Kagel Canyon, in the hills above Lake View Terrace, is in Angeles National Forest.
That permit offered legal protection for a cookout, not a cross burning, Deputy Dist. Atty. Dale Davidson said.
"We're pursuing it because they committed a crime--period," he said. "These guys were warned beforehand that, if they burned a cross, they'd be arrested, and they did it directly in front of the police."
Besides the charge of conspiring to burn waste materials without a permit, the six men are accused of unlawful assembly, carrying night sticks and wearing a disguise during a crime.
"The case does not have any political or religious overtones," Davidson said.
Defense attorney Kevin Avery scoffed at that assertion.
"We're trying to show that what they were doing wasn't illegal. Like everyone else, they were exercising their constitutionally protected privileges of freedom of assembly, religion, association and expression," he said outside the courtroom.
"Take away the robes and hoods, and you've got a fraternity party."
A 1982 state law makes cross burning itself an offense, but not when someone burns the cross on his own property. The 1983 incident took place on property owned by Thomas Miner, one of the defendants.
Testimony on Tuesday indicated that the neighbors closest to the site were about 200 yards away and could see the crosses only with the help of lights from a police helicopter. Nonetheless, two neighbors said that what they saw shocked and angered them.
"It was like a deja vu, " said Robert Buttry, a black man who said he is a native of Georgia and had a previous encounter with the Ku Klux Klan. "I'd thought this was a thing of the past."
But another witness testified that cross burnings are hardly a thing of the past. Peter Lake, a free-lance writer, said he infiltrated Aryan Nations, a white supremacist group based in Idaho and active in Southern California.
Lake, who videotaped the cross burning on the pretext that it would be of "public relations" use for the group, said he and others were instructed in the rite of "cross lighting" by Aryan Nations' founder Richard Butler at his Hayden Lake, Ida., stronghold.
"They call it that, not cross burning, because the intent is not to consume the cross with flame but to illuminate it for its religious associations," he said.
Lake has testified about his undercover research before a Seattle federal grand jury as well as in five trials."
He told Los Angeles Municipal Judge Larry Paul Fidler of his wide range of undercover activities, from taking part in anti-black demonstrations at the Ontario courthouse to engaging in long discussions with Butler about the dreamed-of establishment of a "white homeland."
The case has carved a tortuous path through the legal system. Over more than three years, at least 10 judges have heard various proceedings after charges first were filed against 13 men.
Reinstated on Appeal
Some of the charges have been stiffened from misdemeanors to felonies, and some have gone the reverse route. In 1984, the entire case was dismissed on procedural grounds, but it was reinstated on appeal.
Those charged include Stanley Witek, founder of the National Socialist Aryan Workers Party, and Tom Metzger, former state Ku Klux Klan grand dragon.
Charges have been dropped against four other men already in federal penitentiaries for unrelated convictions ranging from conspiracy to foment a white-supremacist revolution to the murder of a Missouri state trooper.
The preliminary hearing was attended by about a dozen supporters of the defendants, who videotaped prosecutors and reporters during a recess.
"It's unconstitutional, not to mention anti-white," said one of them, who was dressed in combat boots, Army-fatigue pants and a Harley-Davidson T-shirt.