Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Spring - Summer 2008

I write a lot about my life as a public defense lawyer.  So where and when did that dream begin?
  Whence comes the

This illustration is from an ancient phamplet

BIRTH OF A NOTION

GHLIII

In April, 2007 I went to North Carolina on a legal case, and was reminded of a great period in my life. I’d spent two years at UNC-Greensboro in the early 1970s getting a Masters of Fine Arts, a soul-enhancing experience I wouldn’t trade for anything. As the decade waned, I returned to the tarheel state for the four years of my first marriage. It was there, in 1982, that I made another fundamental life decision: to go to law school. This is how it happened.

I’d dreamed of being an attorney since my first viewing of To Kill a Mockingbird at 13. That year I’d won a speech contest at my junior high school reciting a great closing argument from Final Verdict. But a teaching assistant at UC Berkeley – tall, gorgeous, sweet, blonde – convinced me to try academia, a brilliant writing teacher (and several supportive SF professionals) mesmerized me into thinking I could write fiction, and lawyering became something I used to want to do. Until I moved back to North Carolina. Until 1979. Until I attended the “Klan/Nazi” trial in Greensboro.



Greensboro, North Carolina is socio-economically remarkable. To begin with, it’s a major textile center; the denim in your jeans may have been dyed there, beneath a huge smokestack emblazoned with the name of the mill: Revolution.

The city is a mere 550 miles from New York City. Its non-union mills have always been a beacon for the Big Apple’s old left. In the late ‘70s the Workers Viewpoint Organization, a.k.a the Communist Workers’ Party, found it an irresistible target. Young professionals, they'd moved to Greensboro to try to organize the non-unionized mill workers, put their names and rhetoric on broadsheets, and generally play the revolutionary game. Bright people – doctors, many of them – but narrow and fixed. Their rhetoric was strident, their style bombastic, their paranoia intense. William Butler Yeats wrote a poem for such people ... "Easter 1916".

Hearts to one purpose alone

Through summer and winter seem

Enchanted to a stone

To trouble the living stream.

The living stream of Greensboro is also an agricultural hub. Within half an hour’s drive of the textile mills, farm women still wear split bonnets and you can still intoxicate yourself on the heavenly aroma of curing tobacco. As a student, I used to see the indigenous population driving their pickup trucks around the UNC-Greensboro campus, bird-dogging girls and picking fights. These were men who worked in factories, fields, and sawmills. Within them they carried the bitterness, anger, and capacity for terror that the poor have always harbored, and feeding on their frustration like some dinosaur surviving unseen in the wilderness, the Ku Klux Klan was said to prosper out in the countryside.

So two absolutely antithetical groups orbited within the city of Greensboro. On November 3, 1979, they met.

On that day the WVO/CWP held a "Death to the Klan" rally in the middle of a black housing project. To the crowd of the curious hanging out at the corner of Everitt and Carver Streets, the WVO must have seemed as alien as squids ... more funny than anything else. But while the lefties played guitars and sang old movement songs, another meeting was underway out in tobacco country. They weren’t amused. To this gathering people brought not guitars, but guns: shotguns, pistols, and at least one semiautomatic weapon. They passed this latter piece around as they prepped for what they later claimed was to be a mere counter-demonstration. They called themselves Nazis … and the Ku Klux Klan.

They loaded the weapons into the trunk of a blue Fairlane, in which some rode. Others lounged on lawn chairs set up in the back of a yellow van. They left in a caravan. They stopped at the overpass leading into the city from the rural lands where they'd gathered, and then proceeded to Everitt and Carver.

And, eventually, to courtroom 3-C of the Guilford County Courthouse. Where I, at that point jobless, fascinated by court but without a conscious thought of ever working there, found myself, day after day watched six of the Klansman stand trial for murder.



It was a large, well-lit, modern courtroom. Until November 3, 1980, a year after Everitt and Carver became a site historic and horrible, four folding tables sat in its center, boxes stacked below marked with the code number 79-145368, the surfaces heaped high with evidence. The evidence was eclectic: photographs, affidavits, video tapes, a guitar, its strings cut and curling, shotguns, pistols, two-by-two-inch wooden clubs, an AR-180 semi-automatic rifle, and an outrageous straw cowboy hat complete with jaunty red feather. On this day, the anniversary of the massacre and the day on which final arguments would begin, the boxes of stuff were replaced by a podium, and a table. On it, guns. On the wall behind the witness stand was a diagram of the killing ground at Everitt and Carver, showing the location and relative size of buildings, cars, people. An easel held a massive aerial photograph of that intersection: a "bandbox," in the words of the assistant district attorney. All the death on 11-3-79 was dealt in an area smaller than the average front lawn.

The lawyers entered. Cahoon, the defense’s big gun. Jennings, hook-nosed, very bright. Bald and sour, Gleason, President of the Greensboro Jaycees; his father sat behind me almost every day, whispering to his cronies that his son would win the case. Across from them sat Coman and Lester, the short, pugnacious ADAs. Coman handled most of the examinations, and on this day gave the closing argument for the state. The district attorney himself, Mike Schlosser, had once given me one of his campaign bumper stickers, a gift for my friend Dave Schlosser. He’d asked me how the trial looked to a layman. I told him he'd be lucky to get 2nd degree convictions, even though the defendants were blatantly guilty. He nodded.

The defendants came in. Jack Fowler, always neatly attired and groomed, was brought out from the back, cheerful, carrying thick files. Alone of the 6, he had been denied bail, because after firing that AR-180 on 11-3-79 the huge, red-haired, mustached killer lit out for Chicago, dyeing and then trimming the long flowing red hair that shone above his denim as he stood in the middle of Everitt Street and fired, and fired. Wandering in through the front door, like us spectators and the few press, came the other five. Coleman Pridmore, a short, pudgy guy, nattily dressed, his hair slicked back like Elvis’, leaned back against the rail and tapped his toe on his chair. Lawrence Morgan was youngish, with the beginning of a paunch, long black hair, a full black beard, and mean narrow eyes. He lacked a finger on his right hand. I overheard him sharing a josh with their lawyer at the expense of "our main man" Roland Wayne Woods, who had dozed off during court.

Woods bothered me, because in every way except intelligence, he could have been Gordon R. Dickson’s twin. He was tall, redheaded, cheerful, constantly joking around with the deputies, even the black girl at the gate. His hobby was clothes-making; he lacked several teeth in front along his bottom jaw. He called himself a Nazi, even though his father-in-law was Jewish and he claimed that they get along fine. The defense attorney made a big deal about how Woods rose early every Saturday to watch cartoons with his kids. He watched cartoons with them on the morning of November 3rd, 1979. Guilty as hell, and dumb as a bolt, but I rather liked him, and that bothered me.

David Matthews bothered me, too, but it was another sort of bother. The ex-Marine was a flagrant brute. "I only got three," he was quoted as saying by several witnesses. He wore a heavy ring on his right hand, and the back of his hand was adorned with a tattoo of an Iron Cross. Behind his Clark Kent specs his face was sickly pale, and his jaw was thick and heavy. His expression went nowhere and did not change. On the witness stand, when D.A. Coman handed him one of the 2x2 clubs for identification, he held onto it after questioning and after Coman sat down. Matthews stared down at Coman and held the club up towards him. “What should I do with this?" he asked. His expression told what he wanted to do with it. It was different being in the same room as David Matthews; like Travis McGee described the way the FBIers looked at him after the slaughter in The Green Ripper, it was like finding yourself in a cage with one of the big cats, its trainer resting a hand on its tawny back, saying It's all right, he won't hurt you, and you wonder …

The first day I attended the trial, Jerry Paul Smith was on the stand. The wrinkles in his face made him look twice his 33 years, but on 11-3-80, sauntering in, his big shoulders swinging, one got an unmistakable impression of power and youth. His face sagged in a jowly, hangdog way around his dark moustache. He won brownie points on the stand for his country accent, which would stop a brick, by his guilty flinch when he used the term "haul ass" (the whole courtroom laughed at his discomfiture), with his difficulties with long words like "depicted.” He used words like "scrooched" and terms like "done went". He claimed that he had been conked on the head during the initial fracas and could remember nothing of the gunfire. It came out during the trial that he had displayed morgue photos of the dead Reds at a KKK rally. The prosecution had tried to introduce that fact to the jury, but the judge ruled the information irrelevant.

Judge James Long – speaking of whom – was a quiet presence on the bench. During doper days they called him a "hanging judge,” used to meting out strong penalties. This trial he handled calmly; I was impressed.

I wasn’t impressed with the jury, though. I had the constant impression of gum being chewed. This panel was so strongly cracker that I based my grim evaluation to the D.A. entirely on its makeup. The only one of its members with a college degree was a Cuban chemist who (naturally) loathed Communists. One woman had attended a cross-burning as a child. An alternate – who looked familiar – was a Greensboro cop. Vacancy rode most of their faces. Once or twice one nodded as if sleeping, and one guy twitched constantly. I was told he’d laughed aloud at an anti-Red gibe assayed by a defense witness. Several jurors had admitted to not knowing what Nazis were. How could the prosecution have allowed such a collection to be seated? How could they expect such a crew to convict "good ol' boys" of murdering unpleasant if not downright repulsive Communists?

Beside me in the front row of spectators artists sketched courtroom scenes for local TV stations. I wondered where Howard Brodie, dean of the profession, might be. The pews of local press were punctuated here and there by representatives from Red journals. They all smiled cynically; all the lefties seemed to think the trial a joke. The party line was that it was all just for show.

One young lady – pretty, smart, arch –explained why. No local police were on hand during the initial CWP demonstration, having been just let off “for lunch.” A police informant had occupied the first car in the Klan caravan. No “higher-ups” in the KKK had been brought to trial, just six turkeys who were, she said, nothing but “trigger men.” That very day the Reds filed suit against the country, state, county and city, etc. etc. charging that all conspired to deprive the victims of their civil rights. Another constant spectator was Joe Grady, big-gutted, rather short, acne-scarred, missing teeth. His belt was emblazoned with his title, GRAND DRAGON. He wasn’t allowed to pass out Klan literature, but when I asked for a flyer, let me pick a pamphlet from his pocket. (Its illo is atop this article.) The pretty Red reporter sitting with me spotted him squinting into a Worker's Viewpoint newspaper. "Oh, to have a camera," she giggled.

 

Talk, talk, talk ... 20 weeks of talk. I told myself I shouldn't be too hard on the groggy jurors, because all that talk – FBI experts, forensic experts, endless testimony about chain-of-evidence – would weary anyone. But the best evidence, replayed for the closings, was silent ... the video tapes.

Every local TV station had covered the anti-Klan rally, and most had film of the killings. The DA ran it at about 1/20 speed. The 88-second event unfolded, on the TV monitors, over half an hour. The jurors chewed gum and stared at the screen. The ADAs hunched forward and stared at the screen. Jerry Smith leaned on his hand and stared at the screen. No one made a sound.



It happens so slowly. Rhythmic clicks move the people forward, a clock keeping time in the upper right hand corner. You cannot make out anything at first; it is just blur. Then you see a pickup truck, surrounded by a melee, sticks raised high as if jammed up by the crush of people. There is a man wearing a silly straw hat – the one on the evidence table – swinging wildly. The group separates, half falling back to a blue Fairlane parked in the center of the street, its trunk lid up ... and men gather around it, seizing weapons.

Thick, shaggy-haired Fow1er points his semi-automatic. Behind him Pridmore and Matthews wield shotguns. Behind them, by the open door of the van, Lawrence Morgan stands and stares. On the sidewalk, Roland Woods aims a shotgun, advancing towards the demonstrators in a strange, hopping step. Suddenly – or as suddenly as anything can happen in this bizarre, molasses time – Jerry Paul Smith hurtles, crouching, from behind a car, a pistol in either hand, runs up the few feet of sidewalk to extend his arm and from the pistol muzzle at its end spurts a puff of dirty blue smoke ... again ... again ...

Paul Bermazohn catches the bullet that will paralyze him for life, his last step on his own legs a slow, almost elegant pirouette to the ground. A brown-clad figure with a beard lurches out into the center of the Carver/Everitt lawn: Cesar Cauce. He falls, like the toppling of a tall, tall tree, so slowly he falls, onto his side, then rolls onto his face ... and as the camera lingers upon him, he lies there, and lies there, and lies there.



We watched in silence. Smith dropped his eyes. The jurors just stared. Maybe one or two jaws stopped working their gum.



Portly and folksy, Cahoon began the defense’s closing arguments. Amidst funny anecdotes and jokes about lawyers and sleepy jurors, he laid out their basic premise: self-defense. The WVO–slash-CWP had ambushed the KKK caravan, provoked the fight, and the defendants were simply fighting for their lives. To show the despicability of the dead, Cahoon quoted at length from CWP propaganda, the usual bloated Red nonsense. He claimed that the Reds had brought “an arsenal" to wage a bloody fight, which would end in the deaths of innocents (“black children,” said Cahoon), and provide the Communist cause with martyrs. The Klan intended a peaceable counter-demonstration, he said, and countered the prosecution's film of the murders with allegations that the victims had positioned the TV cameras so they could not pick up images of the CWP's gunplay. Why did the Klansmen carry guns? They were country-bred dove-hunters (he actually said that). The Klansmen, he said, had merely gotten the better of a "contest.” “Thank God they prevailed,” he said. “Thank God they won the contest.” Finally, he slapped his hand onto a Bible and claimed the politeness the killers showed to the arresting police proved their patriotic nature. The defendants, he declared, “have shown that they love their country."

That was too much for me. I split. Cahoon noticed. The next day he came up, said hello, and shook my hand.







Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face;
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

(W.H. Auden, from “A Farewell to W.B. Yeats”. )



After just over a week of deliberation, the “dirty dozen,” as I called the jury, announced their verdict. It was a stormy day. I wondered if they’d been told to wait for inclement weather, the better to discourage angry public reaction. The defendants were acquitted.

The Cuban chemist – an active anti-Communist back in Castro country – was foreman, and claimed that all political considerations were completely swept aside when they evaluated the evidence and testimony. A fireman who sat on the panel also claimed that there had been no bias one way or the other, indeed that the verdict had been reached through calm and prayer … and then declared that “no group has the right to thrust their political beliefs on other people.” No one pointed out to this guy how antithetical that sentiment was to freedom of speech.

I was offended head to foot, of course. The defendants belonged in prison, and one or two in the gas chamber. No competent human being with half a brain, I told myself, would have believed the sanctimonious claptrap spouted by the defense attorneys – proposals that because the Klansmen claimed to love their country, and the Communists did not, the killings were not a crime but an act of social heroism. My rose-colored vision of North Carolina was forever sullied, and I never felt nor spoke of the tarheel state with as much affection as before.

Following the verdict, most of the killers disappeared from public view. Rumor had it that Jerry Paul Smith had been invited to appear on Donahue. I have no idea if he did. Roland Wayne Woods, the genial and – I do admit – likable boob who looked like Gordon Dickson, went on TV some time later, touting plans to attend Bible college and "eliminate all the ideologies of hate."

Greensboro itself was both ambivalent and embarrassed. The District Attorney, Mike Schlosser, lost his re-election bid to a lawyer who said he shouldn’t have charged the Klansmen with first degree murder. Saturday Night Live aired a leaden-handed skit mocking the city for the verdict, prompting protest from the city fathers. When CWP survivors erected a huge monument with an angry inscription over the graves of their comrades, the Greensboro city council squawked about it, but tolerance, no matter how reluctant, prevailed.

As for the CWP, every once in awhile one of the survivors would surface to raise a ruckus at a rally or throw an egg at a politician – including the liberal independent, John Anderson. As ever, they seemed out of touch with reality, living an obsolete dream ... but I remained hippy enough to give the Reds credit that their angry, pompous posturing had – beneath it all – a benevolent and admirable purpose. That what they wanted, beyond all the stunted rhetoric, was the triumph of human value.

 

We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?

I write it out in a verse -
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.


For the names of the Irish dead in Yeats’ poem, could we not substitute the CWP dreamers: Waller, Cauce, Sampson, Nathan, Sandy Smith? Could we not afford that much charity?



Of course, I had to separate the Klansmen from my general view of North Carolinians. Beth and her friends were just as upset about the verdict as I was, and I could also take faith from the writing class I was teaching at Guilford Community College. Of these, I particularly noted one smart and sassy tarheel named Frances. She came from the same rural background as Fowler, Mathews and the others, but wouldn’t have had truck with such thugs and their racism on the last day of the world. “They are the aberration,” I wrote in a SFPAzine. “She is the reality.”

Frances credited my writing class with inspiring her to go to college. I’m proud that it had a positive impact on her life. The trial changed mine.

I credit my dear mother. When I told her about the trial, she wondered if it might revive my old ambition to become a lawyer. That annoyed me at the time … but the time passed.

Because my anger over the trial mutated. I was – I remain – convinced that justice had not been done. The Klansmen went to that rally with murder on their minds – their arsenal proved that. The violence that erupted that day was in every respect provoked by them. They were guilty, and escaped the punishment they deserved. I was outraged. But with the passage of time, I began to see another point of view. I began to appreciate what it meant to be their lawyer.



Months later, I spotted the ADAs who’d tried the case sitting in a local joint, still hashing over the trial – and why they’d lost. To me it was obvious: they’d put on a strong case – their case was complete, professional, and compelling – but they’d blown it in voir dire. Allowing that jury to be seated – a jury that laughed along with defense witnesses, that often dozed, that watched trial proceedings with looks of placid, bovine boredom – was the prosecution’s pivotal mistake.

Selecting a jury is as vital a trial function as introducing evidence. The defense packed the jury with pinheads who would spin on said heads to free the KKKers – and won before the first witness was called. I had thought this cynical chicanery – but now I saw it as strategy. (The country would see it played out years later, as “the race card” in the O.J. Simpson trial.) The tactic worked. The prosecution blew it. And that is what matters.

When the government prosecutes someone, they can’t blow it. That’s the American social contract. The power of the state is balanced by its responsibility to prove its case cleanly and decisively. The defense lawyer’s responsibilities are but two: the welfare of his client, and legal process. The defender must put the defendant’s benefit above everything but that. Even above his own idea of what is just. The truth of the charges? Not his to judge. That’s the rule. I learned it during the Klan/Nazi trial, and I didn’t like it – but eventually, I got it.

And so, while watching the 1982 Super Bowl, and reading a Newsweek article about the quarterbacks, I chanced on a photo of the Bengals’ Kenny Anderson. He was studying a law book. I learned that like me, he was 34. He didn’t think that was so old. So, I signed up for the LSAT. In August of that year, I left Greensboro and began law school.

For all I know the CWP and its ilk are still there, hammering their heads against the mills in the name of revolution. The Klan? I’m told the trial broke its power in North Carolina, and I hope that’s so. But God help America, it seems the disease represented by those pointy hats and white sheets, those flying clubs, those puffs of dirty smoke will always fester in our wounds.

Hammer and Sickle    swastika

 

 

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