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Kent State shootings: Survivors want Eric Holder to examine tape

May 04, 2012|By David Zucchino
  • Mary Ann Vecchio screams over the body of a student on the campus of Kent State University on May 4, 1970.
Mary Ann Vecchio screams over the body of a student on the campus of Kent State… (John Filo / Associated Press )

Four people wounded in the 1970 National Guard shootings at Kent State University have asked for a federal investigation centered on a digitally enhanced audio recording of the confrontation. Four students were killed and nine injured in the incident, which began as a campus protest against the Vietnam War.

The survivors contend that the recording contains evidence that National Guard troops were ordered to fire on unarmed protesters.  A command to fire has never been proved, and some Guard members have said they fired in self-defense.

The request for an investigation was made Thursday, a day before Friday's 42nd anniversary of the May 4, 1970, shootings; it asks Atty. Gen. Eric Holder to examine the audio recording, Reuters reports.

The Kent State shootings enraged antiwar protesters, triggering a nationwide student strike that shut down hundreds of universities. A Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of an anguished young woman kneeling over a dead student stands as an icon of the antiwar movement. A Neil Young song, "Ohio," about the shootings became an anthem for rebellious youth of the era.

For many Baby Boomers now in their late 50s and 60s, the so-called Kent State Massacre was a searing and, for some, life-altering event. It came at the height of the antiwar movement and set off a renewed spasm of opposition not only to the Vietnam War but also to the Nixon administration, the Pentagon and other symbols of authority.

The shootings hold far less resonance for today’s college-age Americans. For them, the 42-year-old event might best be described as a particularly demonstrative Occupy rally featuring extreme violence.

Eight Guardsmen were indicted by a grand jury in the shootings, but a judge dismissed the case in 1974.  Wounded students and survivors of those killed received a settlement totaling $675,000 and a statement by the state of Ohio expressing regret for the shootings.

Two of the dead, including an ROTC student, were bystanders who did not take part in the protests. Those killed were 19 and 20 years old. The Guardsmen fired 67 shots over 13 seconds.

Alan Canfora, one of the wounded students, asked the Justice Department in 2010 to review the enhanced recording.  Two private forensic audio experts had concluded that the recordings reveal an order to fire. The Justice Department closed its inquiry last month, saying the recording is inconclusive, Reuters reported.

The recording was made by a Kent State communications student who placed a microphone outside his dormitory room window about 250 feet from the Guardsmen who fired. It is the only known recording of the event.

Canfora this week asked for a new investigation, appealing for Guard members to come forward with new information. He said Guardsmen should be offered immunity from prosecution. Canfora is director of the nonprofit Kent May 4 Center.

Dean Kahler, another of the four wounded students, was paralyzed from the waist down by a Guardsman’s bullet. "We want justice in a sense, to have the truth. It would be nice to know what actually happened,’’ Kahler told Reuters.

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 david.zucchino@latimes.com

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