BRANDENBURG — A civil rights attorney argued Wednesday that a Kentucky-based Ku Klux Klan chapter incited violence against minorities with racist speeches, a charge denied by the group's leader in later testimony during the group's civil trial.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has sued the nation's second-largest Klan outfit on behalf of a Latino teen who was severely beaten in 2006 at a county fair by two Klan members. The Klansmen were convicted and served two years in prison. The center wants its lawsuit to bankrupt the group, Imperial Klans of America.
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"Speakers would stand up and say, 'Kill the Jews. But, before you kill them, torture them first,'" law center co-founder Morris Dees said in his opening statement.
The speeches and "hate metal" music were prevalent each spring at Nordic Fest, an annual gathering of neo-Nazis, skinheads and Klansmen at Grand Wizard Ron Edwards' 28-acre compound in southwest Kentucky, Dees said.
Called to the stand later by Dees, Edwards countered that the group is not normally violent but would defend itself if provoked, like a caged animal.
"We're no more dangerous than a rabbit or a dog," Edwards said. "Put your hand in their mouth, and it might bite you."
The lawsuit against the chapter, Edwards and Klansman Jarred Hensley seeks a "substantial judgment" for the beating of Jordan Gruver. Hensley and fellow Klansman Andrew Watkins were convicted in the beating, but Watkins and other members initially named in the civil lawsuit have reached undisclosed settlements with the law center.
Edwards and Hensley told jurors in their opening statements that they were not violent and did not hurt anyone. Edwards said the people who beat the teenager were not part of his Klan and were not recruiting for him that night.
"I stay above the law," said Edwards, whose arms and neck are covered in tattoos of crosses and Nazi symbols.
Hensley denied setting out to injure Gruver that night and said he wasn't at the fair to recruit. "We were there to have a good time," he said.
Dees said Edwards used the Imperial Klans of America and its affiliation with other groups as a way to make money by charging for membership and through White Rider Records, which sells music filled with hate lyrics.
During Nordic Fest, Edwards doesn't partake in the speeches and music, Dees said. Instead, he stays at the front gate, collecting cash from people. "He operates in cash," he said.
Edwards said there was nothing sinister about his entrepreneurial attempts, including the record company.
"I'm going to prove I have the right to put out CDs like blacks put out rap," he said in his opening statement.
During more than 90 minutes of questioning, Dees talked about the group's shaky finances and repeated accusations it uses violence against minorities.
The trial drew about two dozen spectators, including several wearing black jackets with swastikas and other Nazi symbols. A state trooper told one of them not to stare at witnesses and jurors during a break in the testimony.