A jury awarded $2.5 million in damages on Friday to a Kentucky teenager who was severely beaten by members of a Ku Klux Klan group because they mistakenly thought he was an illegal Latino immigrant, the Southern Poverty Law Center said.
The jury found that the Imperial Klans of America and its founder wrongfully targeted 16-year-old Jordan Gruver, an American citizen of Panamanian and Native-American descent.
The verdict included $1.5 million in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages against "Imperial Wizard" Ron Edwards.
The law center said before the verdict that a large damage award could break the Klan group, allowing the teen and the law center to seize the group's assets, including its headquarters, a 15-acre compound in Dawson Springs, Kentucky.
"We look forward to collecting every dime that we can for our client and to putting the Imperial Klans of America out of business," said SPLC founder and chief trial attorney Morris Dees, who tried the case.
Gruver, backed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, filed the personal injury lawsuit last year seeking up to $6 million in damages from the Imperial Klans of America and two of its leaders -- Edwards and "Grant Titan" Jarred R. Hensley.
An all-white jury of seven men and seven women deliberated for five hours after three days of testimony. The suit alleged that Edwards, Hensley, and the Imperial Klans of America as a whole incited its members to use violence against minorities.
"The people of Meade County, Kentucky, have spoken loudly and clearly. And what they've said is that ethnic violence has no place in our society, that those who promote hate and violence will be held accountable and made to pay a steep price," Dees said.
According to testimony, three members of the Klan group confronted Gruver in July 2006 during a recruiting mission at the Meade County Fair in Brandenberg, Kentucky. They taunted him with ethnic slurs -- inaccurate ones -- spat on him and doused him with alcohol .Two of the men, including Hensley, knocked Gruver to the ground and repeatedly struck and kicked him.
"All I could see was a bunch of feet," Gruver, now 19, told the jury. "As they were kicking me, I prayed to myself. I said, 'God, just please let me go. Please let me make it home.' " When the blows stopped, Gruver had a broken jaw, broken left forearm, two cracked ribs and cuts and bruises.
He testified that he has suffered permanent nerve damage and psychological trauma. He doesn't leave his house and rarely sleeps more than two hours at a time because he has nightmares, CNN affiliate WLKY reported.
Among the evidence the jury saw was a pair of red-laced, steel-toed boots. A police witness testified that Hensley wore the boots the night he and another Klansman attacked Gruver.
Edwards acknowledged from the witness stand that the boots were the "weapon of choice" for skinheads and that the red laces carried special significance -- that "someone should shed blood for their race."
Also revealed during testimony: An alleged Klan plot to kill the Southern Poverty Law Center's attorney, Morris Dees.
Former Klansman Kale Kelly, once a member of Edwards' inner circle, testified he was told to kill Dees because of the center's lawsuit in Idaho against the Aryan Nations, a neo-Nazi supremacist organization.
The plot was thwarted by the FBI in 1999, according to testimony.
Kelly, who since has left the group, cried on the witness stand during his testimony.
Other former Klansmen also testified that they were encouraged to use violence. One said he was conditioned to kill.
Gruver's assailants already have gone through the criminal courts, striking plea bargains and serving time in the Kentucky state prison system, according to court documents. The case was not treated as a hate crime.
Dees alleged that on the night in question -- July 29 and 30, 2006 -- Edwards "sent his agents out on a mission." During that mission, which included recruiting and distributing Klan literature at the fair, Gruver was beaten because the men mistakenly believed he was an illegal immigrant.
Edwards, who represented himself, told the jury he had nothing to do with the attack. "I stay within the law. I don't break the law," he said.
At an earlier court deposition, Edwards demonstrated his contempt for the center and its lawsuit by tattooing a profane reference to it on his freshly shaved head.
On its Web site, the Imperial Klans of America refers to itself as a Christian organization exercising its rights of free speech and assembly under the U.S. Constitution.
The site carries this proviso: "If you are not of the White race, this Web site is not for the likes of YOU!" It then goes on to name the races and ethnicities it "hates," adding, "This is our God-given right."
The Web site disavows violence or any kind of criminal activity.
Edwards lives in a trailer on the Klan group's heavily guarded, gated compound in rural Dawson Springs. The compound is the site of the Klan's annual white power rally and music festival, know as "Nordic Fest," according to the suit.
It was at the compound, the suit alleges, that the Klan group incited its members to use violence against minorities.
The Klan seems to thrive during times of political and financial turmoil, according to organizations that monitor its activities.
The first incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan was founded by a group of Confederate generals at the end of the Civil War to promote a white supremacist agenda. The Klan was driven underground, but re-formed after World War I. Klan activity increased during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and has surged again since 2006 as a result of opposition to gay marriage and immigration.
There is no single, centralized Ku Klux Klan. The Southern Poverty Law Center says the Imperial Klans of America is the second largest KKK group after the Brotherhood of Klans Knights, based in Marion, Ohio.
Booth Gunter, the center's spokesman, said there are 34 named Klan organizations across the country, with 155 separate chapters.
The Anti-Defamation League estimates there are more than 40 different Klan groups, with as many as 5,000 members in more than 100 chapters, or "klaverns," across the country. advertisement
It is not the first time the Southern Poverty Law Center has taken a supremacist group to court and won.
In 2000, for example, the center won a $6.3 million jury verdict that forced Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler to give up the group's Idaho compound. In 1987, a $7 million verdict in Mobile, Alabama, targeted the United Klans of America.
Ku Klux Klan
- Founded as violent white supremacist movement by Confederate officers after the Civil War, lasted until the 1870s
- Klan began again in 1915, still active today
- Most recent surge of activity came during civil rights movement of 1960s
- Membership exceeded 4 million in 1920s; now a few thousand members in splinter groups
Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica