Friday, October 27, 2000

Idaho

Judge refuses Butler's request for new trial
$6.3 million judgment against Aryan Nations stands
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Bill Morlin
Staff writer

Coeur d'Alene _ A judge has denied the Aryan Nations' request for a new trial, leaving intact a $6.3 million jury verdict that will close down the North Idaho hate compound.

First District Judge Charles Hosack said in a 20-page ruling Thursday that he won't interfere with the jury's decision, reached Sept. 7.

The judge said he personally may not have awarded the same amount of compensatory damages to Victoria and Jason Keenan, but said the punitive damages were appropriate based o
n the "outrageous conduct" of the Aryan Nations and its leader, Richard Butler.

"In situations of this nature, the sense of the community is extremely important," Hosack said in his ruling denying a new trial or a reduction of the damages.

The judge said he would defer "to the collective wisdom of the jury, which was unanimous in its verdict."

After a seven-day trial, the jury concluded that the Aryan Nations and Butler were "grossly negligent" for the actions of three Aryan guards who assaulted the Keenans in 1998.

The judge's ruling will clear the way for the immediate transfer of the 20-acre Aryan Nations compound, its buildings and other property to the Keenans.

The Keenans' attorney, Norm Gissel, said that could occur as early as next week.

"This represents the end of a long journey that all of North Idaho undertook," Gissel said Thursday evening.

"It's now over," he said, "and I'm glad the judge ruled the way he did."

Butler's attorney, Edgar Steele, had argued that the punitive awards were excessive and should be reduced because Butler and the Aryan Nations are poor and hold views that are politically incorrect.

Hosack said if the defendant had been a "large powerful corporation, with ample monetary resources," he and the jury would have reached the same conclusion.

Steele didn't cite any case law in support of his argument that the award should be reduced because a defendant is poor or holds politically incorrect views, Hosack said.

The $250,000 in compensatory damages awarded to Victoria Keenan was two or three times greater than what he would have awarded, the judge said. And the $80,000 in compensatory damages awarded to Jason Keenan was two to five times greater than what he would have awarded, Hosack said. The rest of the $6.3 million judgment stems from punitive damages. But the post-traumatic and emotional distress the Keenans continue to suffer gives way to a "wide disparity of opinions" between reasonable people, Hosack said.

The views of the Aryan Nations became relevant in the trial because Butler testified that his beliefs were nonviolent, the judge said.

There was "substantial evidence" that the beliefs of Butler and the Aryan Nations did condone violence, Hosack said.

The beliefs condoning violence are "part of the reason the defendants were negligent in retaining and supervising" the guards, Hosack said.

Steele also argued that a new trial should be granted because of media coverage before or during the trial.

But the judge said the Aryan defense attorney only speculated and did not make any reference to any "extraneous influence from media accounts" upon which a juror relied during deliberations.

"There is no showing on behalf of the (Aryan Nations and Butler) with regard to any effect publicity had, either pretrial or during the trial," Hosack said.

The judge said the trial record "does contain substantial evidence supporting the claims of negligent hiring, retention and supervision" of the guards.

He also said there is "substantial evidence" Butler and the Aryan Nations "knowingly retained unstable individuals with a propensity for violence to conduct security."

Butler allowed the guards to "arm themselves with little or no supervision" and provided little oversight while they got drunk and chased down and shot at the Keenans.

"A simple recitation of the evidence in the record answers the question as to whether there was substantial evidence justifying the submittal of the questions of liability and damages to the jury," Hosack said.

Hosack cited a 1986 case before the Idaho Supreme Court that held judges should grant a new trial if a verdict is not supported by the evidence or "when the verdict is not in accord with either law or justice."

But the state's highest court also has said trial judges should "respect the collective wisdom of the jury and, in most circumstances, accept the jury's findings" even if the judge has doubts about the panel's conclusions.

"There is no doubt in this court's mind that the jury verdict is in accord with the weight of the evidence, no mistake has been made and that the verdict is not so flawed that the ends of justice would be served by vacating the verdict," Hosack said.

The Aryan Nations and Butler "are correct in their claim that they should be allowed to believe in hate," Hosack said.

But when hate beliefs foster a climate leading to foreseeable violence, the judge said, those who allowed it to occur should be held responsible.

•Bill Morlin can be reached at (509) 459-5444 or by e-mail at billm@spokesman.com.


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