A Crime of Hate
01/13/1992 at 01:00 AM EST
WHEN RUSSELL AND LAURA JONES moved into their two-story frame house in St. Paul in March 1990, they had no reason to feel they weren't welcome. One neighbor rushed over to greet them, another baked a cake, and children came to play with the five Jones children in their fenced-in yard. But within two weeks the idyll was shattered. In April, someone slashed the tires of the Joneses' car. In May, only days after Russ bought a used station wagon, the tailgate window was smashed.
Not long after that, as he was herding his children into the wagon one evening, Russ noticed three teenagers with shaved heads, wearing combat boots and fatigues. As the three walked past, one of them called Jones's oldest son "nigger." That frightened Russ. "I got in the habit of looking around before going to bed and thinking, 'What's going to happen next?' " says the 33-year-old computer-factory worker, who was delighted to find a large, affordable house in the blue-collar Dayton's Bluff neighborhood.
Then, in the early morning hours of June 21, awakened by running footsteps, he and his wife looked out of their window and saw a cross burning in their yard. "It was only two feet tall, but it looked so big all aglow," recalls Laura, 28. "It was terrifying."
For the Joneses, the flaming cross was clearly symbolic of the Ku Klux Klan—and of the whippings, lynchings and terror that name evokes. But the cross burning has since taken on even greater significance. Prosecutors for the first time used a St. Paul "hate law" ordinance—which specifically makes bias-motivated cross burning a crime—to charge Robert Viktora, a 17-year-old high school dropout, with disorderly conduct in the case. But he has yet to be prosecuted. Arguing that the so-called "hate crime" law violates the First Amendment right to free speech, Viktora's lawyer, Ed Cleary, challenged its constitutionality in Ramsey County juvenile court—and won. The Minnesota Supreme Court overturned that ruling, and now Cleary has taken his case all the way to the highest court in the land. Arguments were heard in Washington, D.C., last month; a decision is expected by spring or summer.
Cleary, a public defender who was assigned the Viktora case, doesn't dispute that burning a cross on someone's lawn can be a crime. But he insists that Viktora could have simply been charged with another crime—such as assault—that wouldn't have raised First Amendment issues. Cleary also argues that cross burning, although loathsome, is an act of expression that should be protected, just as the Supreme Court ruled in 1990 about burning the flag. "It's the law that's on trial," he has said, "not my client."
Tom Foley, the Ramsey County attorney who is representing the city of St. Paul, argues, "Not all speech is free speech." He says that Viktora did not act in support of a cause or an ideology but with the intent of threatening and intimidating a family because of their race.
The defendant's father, Ed Viktora, claims his son was merely a bystander on the night of the burning. (A friend of Viktora's, Arthur Miller, 18, pleaded guilty to the cross burning and was sentenced to 30 days in jail.) "Robbie is not a racist," says the elder Viktora, describing his son as a Boy Scout whose intelligence made him a candidate for a University of Minnesota math program for exceptional students. "Then he got into the wrong crowd at 16," says Viktora, adding that Robbie was picked up for shoplifting, dropped out of school and started hanging out with a rough group, including some skinheads.
The cross-burning case has taken a heavy toll on the Viktora family. Ed and his wife separated last spring because, he says, "she couldn't stand the pressure"; Robbie has also moved out and quit his job at a St. Paul factory, leaving Viktora alone with his 15-year-old daughter. "I don't know where Robbie is. The boy feels guilty," says Viktora. "He feels he ruined the whole family. The last thing he said when he left was that 'it would be better off if I'd never been born.' "
The Joneses say they are not angry at Robbie Viktora, who showed up at their home last spring. "I went to the door, and there was this small, very blond boy standing there," Laura recalls. "He said, 'I was told I had to say I'm sorry, so okay.' He turned to walk away, and I said, 'Excuse me, who are you?' He said, 'I'm Robert Viktora,' and sauntered away."
Meanwhile, the Joneses are trying to get on with their lives. After Russ and Laura went to Washington to hear oral arguments before the Supreme Court last month, the couple have returned to their usual routine, with Laura caring for the children—Russell Jr., 11, Clifton, 9, Tanisha, 7, Justin, 6, and Selena, 3—and waitressing four nights a week, while Russ works his factory job.
They hope that the Supreme Court will uphold the St. Paul law, but they also know that even that cannot set things totally right, despite the fact that neighbors have been supportive and there have been no other incidents. "This hasn't changed us, but we're more aware of explaining things we wouldn't have before, like racism," says Laura. "Now Russell Jr. knows it first-hand—at school the kids call him nappy-head." She says her son has becoming increasingly concerned about his hair and has told his teacher he'd like to bleach his skin like Michael Jackson. "It's hard to see that," she says sadly, looking at her husband as they sit in their living room. Russell agrees. "The innocence," he says, "is gone."
MARGARET NELSON in St. Paul and LINDA KRAMER in Washington, D.C.