Kent State Student Killings

Kent State Student Killings

In 1970, the United States was in the middle of the Vietnam War, and anti-war demonstrations among students around the country were frequent. However, one at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio (near Akron) turned deadly. In 13 seconds of rifle fire, four students were killed and nine others injured by a National Guard contingent called in to quell the crowd. The tragic event cast the university into the international spotlight, and changed the face of student demonstrations forever.

The rioting had begun on Friday, May 1, 1970, when several students organized an on-campus demonstration to protest U.S. troops entering Cambodia. That evening, a crowd of drinking and agitated students moved off campus and began breaking windows in the center of town. Police were called in to disperse the crowd. The Kent city mayor, having heard rumors of a radical plot in the making, declared a state of emergency and Ohio officials called in the National Guard. Local bars were closed by authorities, and rioters were herded back toward the campus with tear gas.

By Saturday, the agitated demonstrators had threatened local merchants and surrounded the on-campus barracks of the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), setting the building on fire. When firemen attempted to extinguish the blaze, the rioters punctured or cut open their water hoses. National Guard troops again cleared the campus. The hostility intensified on Sunday, when the crowd failed to disperse on orders to do so. The Ohio Riot Act was read to them and tear gas was fired. The hostile rioters regrouped and moved into town, where the Riot Act was again read to them and tear gas was again used. Several persons, including guardsmen, were injured.

By noon on Monday, May 4, approximately 2,000 demonstrators gathered and were ordered to disperse. They responded with curses and rocks. Eventually, tear gas was again employed but was ineffectual in the afternoon breeze. As the crowd grew more agitated, it was herded by guardsmen toward an athletic practice field surrounded by fence. After being pelted with rocks, the guardsmen receded but were followed by angry demonstrators, some as close as 20 yards. Guardsmen turned and fired several shots toward the demonstrators, felling several of them. Within seconds, four persons lay dying and nine more were wounded; all 13 were students. A University ambulance moved through the crowd, announcing over a public address system that demonstrators were to pack their things and leave the campus immediately.

Shock and disbelief of the tragic events spread worldwide within hours. By the following morning, James A. Rhodes, governor of Ohio, had called in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). richard m. nixon, president of the United States, invited six Kent student representatives to meet with him after their meeting with a state congressman.

On May 21, 1970, Attorney General john mitchell announced that the Justice Department would investigate the shootings to determine whether there had been criminal violations of federal laws. Two weeks later, the Ohio legislature passed a new campus riot bill providing for swift action and stiff penalties for those charged in connection with disturbances at state-assisted Colleges and Universities.

By June 10, the first private lawsuit for Wrongful Death was filed in federal court by the father of a killed student. Governor Rhodes and two Ohio National Guard commanders were named as defendants. The parent also filed a second suit against the state of Ohio in local Portage County Court of Common Pleas. A few days later, the White House announced the naming of a special commission to investigate campus unrest at Kent, as well as the deaths of two black students at Jackson State University in Mississippi.

In September 1970, the President's Commission on Campus Unrest released its general report, which found the National Guard shootings "unwarranted." The report also found that the "violent and criminal" actions by students contributed to the tragedy and caused them to bear responsibility for deaths and injuries of fellow students. According to Kent State University Library archives, the report concluded that "The Kent State tragedy must surely mark the last time that loaded rifles are issued as a matter of course to guardsmen confronting student demonstrators."

A special state Grand Jury issued indictments against 25 persons in October 1970, but found, in its 18-page report, that the guardsmen were not subject to criminal prosecution because they "fired their weapons in the honest and sincere belief … that they would suffer serious bodily injury had they not done so." A federal district judge upheld the indictments against the individuals in January 1971. However, several private lawsuits against the state of Ohio were dismissed on grounds of Sovereign Immunity. Ohio's Eighth District Court of Appeals then ordered a lower court to consider on the merits any suits in which liability was based on the actions of individual Ohio state agents.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, meanwhile, upheld the Portage County Court's Gag Order prohibiting discussion of the shootings by 300 witnesses and others connected with the grand jury indictments. It also upheld the federal grand jury's 25 indictments and the district court's order to destroy the grand jury's report as prejudicial.

Going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court was a challenge to Ohio's new anti-riot laws, but the Court, in a 6–1 decision, took no action and refused to delay scheduled trials. In November 1972, the first student was tried and convicted of the misdemeanor of interfering with a fireman. The jury could not reach a verdict on felony charges of Arson, rioting, and throwing rocks at firemen. A few more students pleaded guilty to first-degree riot charges. Prosecutors then dropped all charges against 20 remaining defendants on grounds of lack of evidence, having put their strongest cases first and not being successful in any felony convictions.

In May 1972, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed several suits totaling $12 million in damages in federal district court against the Ohio National Guard and the State of Ohio. More than a year later, in August 1973, the Justice Department announced that it would reopen its investigation. Also in 1973, a federal grand jury reviewed Justice Department evidence and issued indictments against eight former guardsmen, officially charging them with violating the Civil Rights of students. In 1974, a federal district judge acquitted the guardsmen of all charges, ruling that U.S. prosecutors failed to prove willful or intentional deprivation of civil rights.

Once again, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision related to the tragedy. In the 1974 case of Scheur v. Rhodes, the Court reversed a lower court that found state officials immune from private suits by the parents of slain students. In 1975, all individual civil suits were consolidated into one case, Krause v. Rhodes. Following a 15-week trial, a federal jury, by a 9–3 vote, acquitted all 29 defendants, including Ohio Governor James Rhodes. The decision was appealed and in 1977, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ordered a retrial, based on evidence that at least one member of the jury had been threatened and assaulted. In January 1979, an out-of-court settlement was reached in all of the consolidated civil cases and approved by the Ohio State Controlling Board.

The $675,000 settlement was dispersed among 13 plaintiffs, the largest amount going to an injured student who was paralyzed in the incident. According to Kent University Library archived documents, the compensation was accompanied by a statement from the defendants that the May 4, 1970, tragedy "should not have occurred." The statement also noted that the Sixth Circuit had upheld as "lawful" the university's ban on rallies and its May 4 order for the students to disperse. The statement concluded, "We hope that the agreement to end this litigation will help assuage the tragic moments regarding that sad day."

Further readings

Kent State University Libraries and Media Services, Department of Special Collections and Archives. 1995. Legal Chronology May 5, 1970–January 4, 1979. Web site homepage at <www.library.kent.edu> (accessed August 3, 2003).

Cross-references

Protest; Riot; Vietnam War.

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