Jury Awards $7 Million in Damages in Slaying
MOBILE, Ala. (AP) _ A federal jury Thursday awarded $7 million in damages against the United Klans of America and six past and present Klansmen in the 1981 slaying of a black teen-ager whose body was left hanging in a tree.
The verdict by the all-white jury was awarded to the family of Michael Donald, 19, who was beaten and strangled in Mobile on March 21, 1981.
″I’m glad justice was done,″ Beulah Mae Donald, the victim’s mother, said at a news conference.
″Money don’t mean a thing to me. It won’t bring my child back. But I’m glad they caught the guilty and brought them to court because I did everything I could to help.″
U.S. District Judge Alex Howard said he would hold a hearing within 90 days to determine the Klan’s assets and what action was needed to turn them over to Donald’s family. The Alabama chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had originally joined in the lawsuit on behalf of all blacks in the state, but later was removed from the action.
No decision has been made on whether to appeal, said Klan attorney John Mays.
The verdict is expected to give the Donald family title to the United Klans’ 7,000-square-foot national headquarters building in Tuscaloosa, said Morris Dees, an attorney for Donald’s family.
″A court will decide shortly who actually has title to this piece of property,″ Dees said.
The United Klans has about 2,500 members in the Southeast.
State Sen. Michael Figures, attorney for the Donald family, called the verdict a ″landmark ruling that would make sure Donald’s death was the last Klan lynching.″
Klan Imperial Wizard Robert Shelton, who had sat with the defendants in court although he was not sued, left the courtroom immediately with Mays, refusing to comment.
Bill Stanton, the director of Klanwatch, a Montgomery-based, anti-Klan group, said his organization was ″extremely pleased″ for the Donald family.
″We believe the death of their relative ... will not be in vain as a result of this case,″ said Stanton.
″Victims of Klan violence now have a precedent to seek damages from the corporate Klan behind the perpetrators of these kinds of violent acts.″
Earlier, a Ku Klux Klansman convicted in the killing pleaded with the all- white jury to decide in favor of the black victim’s family, who brought the suit.
″Return a judgment against me and everything else,″ said James ″Tiger″ Knowles, 24, a defendant.
Then, turning to Mrs. Donald, Knowles apologized in tears before a courtroom filled with about 100 spectators.
″God knows, if I could trade places with him, I would,″ said Knowles, who has acted as his own attorney and was allowed to make a closing statement.
Knowles was sentenced to life in prison in the killing. Another Klansman and a co-defendant, 32-year-old Henry Francis Hays, was sentenced to death in the case. Knowles testified against Hays at that trial.
Earlier Thursday, Dees compared Donald to martyrs of the civil rights movement, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
″They sacrificed a human being to get some publicity for the Klan,″ said Dees.
″He died because the Klan killed him,″ Dees said of Donald. ″He’ll go down in civil rights history in the fight for black rights. I hope your verdict goes down in history right beside him.″
In a summation that lasted more than an hour, Dees told the jury the Klan was not a group of ″good old boys″ but a corporation that is ″very complex, highly financed,″ and should be held responsible for Donald’s death.
Mays said in his closing argument that the murder was a ″gross and horrible atrocity,″ but he said the jury should not hold the organization responsible.
The defendants contended that they were not involved in a conspiracy to kill Donald.
During the trial, Hays’ father, 70-year-old Bennie Jack Hays, a local Klan officer who is a defendant, said witnesses who accused him of having prior knowledge of plans to kill a black person were liars.
The defendants acted as their own attorneys in the trial, which began Monday. The others were Frank Cox, the son-in-law of Bennie Jack Hays; William O’Connor; and Thaddeus Betancourt.
O’Connor, Cox and Knowles say they have quit the Klan.
Knowles testified that Donald was abducted at random and slain to show Klan strength in Alabama and intimidate blacks from serving on juries.
Cox was charged with murder conspiracy in 1984, but the charge was dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired.
″I am not guilty of any conspiracy Mr. Dees has put upon me,″ Cox told the jury.
The suit alleged that Henry Hays and Knowles killed Donald and that the others conspired in the killing by knowing of the plans beforehand or had knowledge afterwards that the murder had been committed but said nothing.
Dees, founder of the Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center and the center’s Klanwatch agency, quoted from Klan documents that detailed the military structure of the United Klans and its goals of white supremacy.
The Klan presented no witnesses.
Shelton described the proceeding as a ″show trial″ and said the Klan put on no witnesses to avoid a ″seesaw″ debate with Dees.
The judge dismissed Teddy Kysar, one defendant, at the end of testimony Wednesday at the plaintiff’s request. Kysar is a former Klan member who cooperated with authorities during the investigation that led to Hays’ conviction.