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Metzger, 3 Others Go on Trial : Courts: Defendants hoped to provoke violence by burning crosses in a racially mixed area of the San Fernando Valley, prosecutor charges.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Surpassing the “boundaries of (free) expression,” Tom Metzger and three fellow white supremacists hoped to provoke a violent clash when they joined in a cross-burning ceremony eight years ago in a racially mixed San Fernando Valley neighborhood, a prosecutor charged Wednesday.

On the opening day of the quartet’s trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court, prosecutors said participants in the Dec. 3, 1983, ritual donned robes and masks, wielded billy clubs and ignited three 15-foot wooden crosses until police moved in to arrest the group.

Metzger, a former Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon and current leader of the White Aryan Resistance (WAR), and three co-defendants are charged with a felony count of conspiracy to violate the municipal fire code and misdemeanor counts of unlawful burning and unlawful assembly.

It has taken eight years for the case to reach trial, in part because the charges were dismissed by one court, then reinstated on appeal. Fifteen men were originally arrested, but several dropped out of the case after they were convicted of more serious crimes, such as murder, as part of a national wave of white racist violence.

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The trial opened Wednesday before Judge J.D. Smith after a week of jury selection rendered a panel of six white women and six men and women from various minority groups. Scores of prospective jurors were eliminated in the screening--some because they said their personal feelings about the KKK would inhibit their ability to give the defendants a fair trial.

John Phillips, a special prosecutor, told the jury that Metzger and the others obtained a fire permit for an open-pit barbecue in the Kagel Canyon area of the San Fernando Valley in December, 1983, as a cover.

“They operated under a ruse to disguise their activities, much like a hood disguises the Klansman,” said Phillips, a former city attorney now in private practice.

“The boundaries of expression . . . were clearly passed by the lighting of these crosses,” Phillips continued, adding that Metzger and the others staged the incident “with full knowledge of the provocation (in the) wanting of violence to occur.”

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Not only were they armed with billy clubs, he said, but they wore bulletproof vests, body armor and riot helmets--clear indication of the violence they hoped to incite.

The defendants, who have pleaded not guilty, maintain that they were holding a private ceremony on their own private property as part of their constitutional right to free speech.

The defense did not make an opening statement Wednesday, but Metzger, outside the courtroom, said the trial amounts to political persecution.

“I’m just in there for the sacrificial lamb,” Metzger said. “I’m being punished for being effective. . . . They’ve got to figure out some way to shut me up.”

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Metzger, who lost his Fallbrook home and most of his assets after a $12.5-million judgment was awarded to the family of an Ethiopian emigre beaten to death by skinheads in Portland, Ore., said he attended the Kagel Canyon ceremony to give a speech. He did not burn the crosses, he said, and called the charges against him “asinine.”

“I didn’t drive all the way to Los Angeles to conspire to violate the fire code,” Metzger, 53, said.

Before the trial began, Smith was asked to investigate an accusation that Irv Rubin, who heads the Jewish Defense League, had tampered with members of the jury. A prospective juror told the court that he observed Rubin, in a courthouse elevator, talking to a juror about one of the defendant’s criminal record.

The juror was called into Smith’s chambers Wednesday. According to the attorneys present, he stated that he was not influenced by Rubin’s statements. The juror was allowed to remain on the panel.

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Rubin, who early in the proceedings engaged in a hallway shouting match with defendant Stanley Witek, could not be reached for comment.

In addition to Metzger and Witek, who represents a neo-Nazi party, the defendants are Brad Kelly and Erich Schmidt.

Selecting the jury was a grueling process. Attorneys for both sides submitted hundreds of questions they wanted put to the prospective jurors. The defense wanted to know, among other questions, what jurors’ opinions were about interracial marriage, segregation and the nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court of black jurist Clarence Thomas.

One question submitted by defense attorney Kevin S. Avery asked about the Holocaust:

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“A belief held by some people in this country is that there was no deliberate and systematic killing of Jews by the Nazis during the 1930s and World War II. Do you agree or disagree with this belief and why?”

Smith, while stating that “some provocative questions may have to be asked,” discarded most of the more controversial questions. Instead, he focused on prospective jurors’ familiarity with law enforcement authorities and organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan.

Numerous prospective jurors were vetoed by either the prosecution or the defense in what appeared to be an effort to influence the racial makeup of the panel. The defense accused prosecutors of arbitrarily removing whites, while the prosecution charged that the defendants were attempting to keep minorities off the panel.

Some prospective jurors were disqualified by unanimous agreement among the judge and attorneys.

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These included a black employee of an air freight company who said she would have difficulty separating her dislike for the KKK from her evaluation of the case.

“It upsets me just knowing that (the defendants are) KKK,” she told the judge.

Also dismissed in the same manner was a white man who produces a radio show for the Union Rescue Mission. The man told the court he was raised in Alabama and once helped his father extinguish the burning front lawn of a black neighbor who was being harassed by the KKK.

“Sir,” the man told the judge when asked about his familiarity with white supremacist groups, “I grew up in the South. It was kind of hard for me to avoid that.”

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He said that while intellectually he thought he could judge the case fairly, his “gut” told him something else.

The evidence to be submitted in the trial includes a videotape of the ceremony made by free-lance journalist Peter Lake, who infiltrated the group.

In an apparent setback for the prosecution, a key witness will be barred from testifying, according to attorneys for both sides. The witness, Michael Canale, is a former Nazi Party member who purportedly had a change of heart while in prison for burning a synagogue. He helped Lake make inroads in white supremacist circles and was scheduled to testify on Klan activities.

Defense attorneys, in a motion to have Phillips removed from the case, charged that the attorney once represented Canale, a relationship that constituted a conflict of interest. Rather than remove Phillips, the judge barred Canale.

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