JOHN MANGELS, Cleveland Plain Dealer, November 4, 2010
A congressional probe into new revelations about the Kent State University shootings will be hampered — or may be curtailed — by voters’ decision Tuesday to hand Republicans control of the House of Representatives.
Cleveland Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich had launched an inquiry in October into the May 4, 1970, killing and wounding of 13 students and Vietnam War protesters by Ohio National Guardsmen. The notorious incident hardened sentiment against the war, while also raising national alarm about campus unrest.
Kucinich, who chairs a House subcommittee with oversight of the FBI and the Justice Department, began the inquest after The Plain Dealer published articles containing new details gleaned from a long-forgotten audiotape of the shootings.
Though he won re-election Tuesday, Kucinich will lose his subcommittee chairmanship and its investigative power when Republicans gain control of the House in January. His office was scrambling Wednesday to adjust the inquiry’s timetable to the suddenly looming deadline.
Kucinich and the subcommittee’s staff “are working to see if it is possible to hold a hearing before the end of this year,” spokesman Nathan White said via e-mail. The congressman “has personally talked to several witnesses” who have agreed to testify, White said, though he declined to identify them. Kucinich “believes that holding this hearing swiftly is important to ensure that the information is entered into the public record before any more time passes.”
A forensic audio expert who examined the 40-year-old recording earlier this year at The Plain Dealer’s request, using modern sound-filtering and analyzing software, reported hearing an altercation and four pistol shots roughly 70 seconds before the Guardsmen opened fire, and later, a male voice commanding the Guard to prepare to shoot.
Previous investigations had determined that the Guardsmen wheeled and fired spontaneously, even though they were not at imminent risk. Some Guardsmen claimed to have heard an order to fire. Others reported reacting to pistol shots, possibly from a sniper, though much more immediately than the 70 seconds that pass between the apparent pistol shots on the tape and the Guardsmen’s volley.
No officer ever admitted issuing a firing command, and none of the criminal, civil or independent reviews identified anyone other than Guardsmen as having fired their weapons.
It is difficult to determine how, if at all, the apparent altercation and pistol shots and the subsequent firing command captured on the tape are related. The violent confrontation between members of the protest crowd and someone – with shouts of “Kill him!” and “Hit the [expletive]!” – are followed by what forensic audio expert Stuart Allen believes are four shots from a .38-caliber revolver.
After The Plain Dealer reported the latest findings, some speculated that the altercation involved Terry Norman, a Kent State law enforcement student who was carrying a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson pistol during the May 4 protest rally and was taking photos of demonstrators for the university police department and the FBI.
Norman claimed he was assaulted by crowd members angered by his picture-taking and told investigators he drew his gun to warn them away. But he denied firing, and insisted that the dust-up happened after the Guard gunfire, not before.
Several witnesses said they heard a Kent State policeman who inspected Norman’s pistol exclaim that it had been fired four times. The officer later denied making the remark. An FBI lab test determined the gun had been fired since its last cleaning, but could not pinpoint when.
In 1973, then-U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh pressed the Justice Department to look into Norman’s activities, saying he may have been the catalyst for the Guard’s shootings. A federal grand jury questioned Norman in December 1973, but he was not charged.
“As far as we were concerned at the time, [Norman] was a non-issue in the overall events of what happened that day,” Robert Murphy, the Justice Department lawyer who led the grand jury probe, said in a telephone interview Monday.
The grand jury indicted eight low-ranking Guardsmen on civil rights violations for the shootings. A federal judge later dismissed the charges (pdf). Norman joined the Washington, D.C., police department several months after the Kent State incident. His precise whereabouts today are not known.
Kucinich has asked the FBI to produce records that might show whether Norman was working as a confidential informant or some other capacity, and whether the bureau helped him get the D.C. police job. He has said the subcommittee will attempt to locate and interview Norman, and that he may be called to testify.
In addition to the House inquiry, the Justice Department’s civil rights division is weighing whether to re-open an investigation of the Kent State affair based on the potential new audio evidence. No decision has been reached, a spokeswoman said Wednesday.
Cleveland attorney Terry Gilbert and Alan Canfora, who was wounded by the Guard’s gunfire, recently met with Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez and U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach to discuss the possibility of a renewed federal review.
Since the statute of limitations for civil rights violations has long since expired, Gilbert said some of the discussion involved the basis for a federal case, assuming there’s evidence to warrant moving forward. “We told Mr. Perez that we’re not looking to put people in jail,” Gilbert said. “We’re looking for some answers and acknowledgment that this evidence is compelling. We’re researching whether, within the Justice Department, there’s some kind of fact-finding process that’s designed to further justice, but not prosecute.”
Gilbert said the department’s inspector general, for example, might be able to provide an impartial, independent review of the FBI’s role at Kent State.
The political changeover and its potential effect on Kucinich’s investigation of Kent State is a setback, Gilbert acknowledged, but he remains optimistic.
“We’re in a worse position now in getting politicians to look at this case than we were yesterday, but we’re not giving up,” he said. “As long as people are around who remember that day, there are going to be some serious efforts to try to get to the truth.”