(CN) - A Kentucky Klan leader is liable for a county-fair beating carried out by men he chose to recruit new members, a state appeals court ruled, agreeing that its January decision clearing the Klansman was made in error.
Ronald Edwards established the Imperial Klans of America in 1996. Its handbook calls itself a "patriotic movement promoting the ideals of Western Christian civilization" but also states that the group "hates" Jews, blacks, Latinos and people of mixed race.
Jordan Gruver, a U.S. citizen whose father is from Panama and mother is from Kentucky, was attacked at the 2006 Meade County Fair by four members of the IKA, which reportedly has the second largest membership of any Klan outfit.
Jarred Hensley, Andrew Watkins, Josh Cowles and Matthew Roberts were recruiting members at the fair because, as one of the men testified, Meade County is a "redneck county." They were distributing cards and wearing steel-toed boots with red laces to show they had spilled blood for the white race.
At around midnight, the group caught sight of Gruver, then 16, who stood 5-foot-2 and weighed 135 pounds. All four Klan members were over 6-feet tall, and two weighed 300 pounds. The IKA members called Gruver "an illegal spic" and a "border hopper." Watkins threw whiskey into Gruver's face, and Hensley knocked the boy to the ground. As Gruver lay in the fetal position, the men repeatedly kicked him with their steel-toed boots, breaking his jaw and permanently damaging his arm.
Edwards, the IKA leader who lives in Kentucky, was not at the fair and learned about the attack after police had arrested two of the men. Though he knew that three of Gruver's attackers had been convicted of violent crimes, he believed that "everybody deserves a second chance," according to the court.
Watkins and Hensley were arrested and pleaded guilty to assault. Gruver included Edwards in his civil complaint, including a claim for negligent selection and retention, as well as a claim for negligent supervision and instruction.
At trial, Edwards argued that his was exercising his First Amendment right to free speech, but witnesses came forward with stories of Edwards encouraging them to commit violent acts.
Though the IKA handbook states that "we are not promoting violence in any way," it also says, "when there is at least one of us who will stand up and fight, there will always be hope for victory. ... The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is not, nor ever will be, a paper tiger."
A Klan member named Kale Kelly said of Edwards, "He promotes violence and hatred among anybody who he feels threatens him: Minorities, Jews, blacks, I've lived with him. I know this."
Gruver settled with Watkins and Cowles, but his case against Hensley and Edwards went to trial.
A jury awarded Gruver $2.5 million, which included $1 million punitive damages, to be paid entirely by Edwards, and $1.5 million in compensatory damages, split 80-20 between Hensley and Edwards.
On appeal, Edwards argued that Kelly's testimony should not have been admitted.
In January, the Kentucky Court of Appeals let Edwards off the hook and ordered a new trial. But then it granted Gruver's petition, agreeing that the January decision improperly relied on the doctrine of respondeat superior, which is not applicable in determining liability for negligent selection.
The latest decision points out that Kelly's testimony constituted only four pages of a 930-page transcript.
The appeals court also disagreed with Edwards' complaint that evidence of the attackers' criminal history prejudiced the jury against him.
Describing the appeals court's rejection of that claim, Judge Glenn Acree noted a comment from the jury foreman before he read the verdict: "It was very difficult. It was very emotional for some of us. We didn't agree on everything at all times, and it was challenging."
Acree said the comment indicated a lack of prejudice toward Edwards.
"The jury's sober comments and this verdict undermine Edwards' argument that the jury's verdict was based solely upon their passions or prejudices against him," Acree wrote.
Judge Michael Caperton partially dissented because he felt the jury was prejudiced by Kelly's testimony that Edwards instructed him to kill Morris Dees, who served as one of Gruver's attorneys.
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