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Cross-Burning Convictions Upheld

March 1, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today left intact the cross-burning convictions and prison sentences of three North Carolina men who tried to intimidate their neighbors, an interracial couple.

The court, without comment, turned away arguments that a federal anti-arson law wrongly was used to add five years to each man’s prison term, and that the convictions violated their free-speech rights. A federal appeals court previously had rejected those arguments.

Alfred and Eugene Smith and Martin King lived in rural Haywood, N.C., across the street from Gordon Cullins, who is black, and Hazel Sutton, who is white.

Unhappy about a mixed-race couple in the neighborhood, the three men decided to burn crosses on their neighbors’ front lawn on New Year’s Eve 1992. When Cullins and Ms. Sutton returned home, they saw smoldering crosses on their lawn and heard racial slurs yelled by the three men.

King and the Smiths were indicted in 1996 and charged with conspiring to violate their neighbors’ civil rights, intimidation and use of fire during a felony.

Their conviction on the last charge added five years to each man’s sentence. In all, King was sentenced to six years in prison; Alfred Smith to six years and nine months; and Eugene Smith to 15 years.

In the appeals acted on today, lawyers for the three argued that the anti-arson law should not have been used in connection with an illegal conspiracy because the crime _ conspiring _ occurred without use of fire.

The appeals also contended that use of anti-arson law violated free-speech rights because of ``the expressive conduct conveyed in cross-burning.″

Justice Department lawyers urged the court to reject the appeals, contending that the cross burning furthered the illegal conspiracy. Because the men could not have achieved the object of their agreement without igniting the crosses, the government lawyers said, ``they used fire to commit the underlying civil rights violations.″

The government lawyers also said the free-speech claims had no merit. ``It is well established that the First Amendment does not protect threats and intimidation,″ they said.

The cases are King vs. U.S., 98-1024, and Smith vs. U.S., 98-6523.

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