Akron Beacon Journal, Op-ed, May 4, 2007


Was there an order to fire?

37 years later, the essential May 4, 1970, question remains

By William A. Gordon

The writer, formerly of Akron and a 1973 graduate of Kent State University, is the author of four books, including Four Dead in Ohio: Was There a Conspiracy at Kent State?

Fraud. That is the only word I can think of to describe Alan Canfora's attempt to convince us that he discovered a long-overlooked order to kill the students at Kent State on May 4, 1970.

Canfora, one of the nine students wounded by the Ohio National Guardsmen on that historic day, tried to convince us that someone yelled: ``Right here. Get set. Point. Fire.''

It was supposed to be audible in a tape recording of the shootings. However, neither I nor any of the members of news organizations that contacted me could hear the word ``Fire'' -- which is not surprising, considering the fact that none of the witnesses reported hearing this version of the shootings either.

The FBI interviewed at least 540 witnesses, and Canfora's own attorneys formally deposed or informally talked to at least 100 more while preparing for the 1975 wrongful death and injury trials. And do you know what? Not a single person at the trials reported hearing anything remotely resembling these words, which do not even sound like an order any military officer would even give.

This was, as I have been saying all along, probably a hoax.

There is no question Canfora tried to lead us down the wrong tracks. Which is unfortunate, because if anyone else tried to search for the truth, they might have found an intriguing circumstantial case that there was indeed an order to fire -- probably issued by a nonverbal command.

Why do I say that? First, we know that the Guard troops' claims of self-defense were wildly inflated. When the FBI took measurements of the scene, it discovered that the protesters were too far away from the troops to pose any real danger.

Second, we know that there was not any rock attack, despite what the soldiers claimed. The photographs failed to capture any rocks being thrown by protesters at the crucial moments, and the Guardsmen did not suffer any significant injuries immediately before or during the shootings (although there were some notable injuries due to thrown objects a few minutes earlier).

Third, dozens of witnesses reported seeing the Guardsmen turn in unison and start firing as if they were responding to a military command.

The evidence that there was a verbal order is completely underwhelming. But there were certainly tantalizing leads that there might have been a nonverbal command. This was a possibility that neither the FBI nor other investigators ever really explored.

During the 1975 trial of a $40 million wrongful death lawsuit against then-Gov. James Rhodes, Kent State and the Ohio National Guard, brought by the families of the four killed students, U.S. District Judge Don Young refused to allow jurors to hear previous federal grand jury testimony that contradicted the Guard troops' testimony in the civil trial.

The victims' families' attorneys wanted to introduce the federal grand jury testimony to impeach the Guardsmen's credibility, and were successful only in having the testimony read into the trial record.

The most shocking piece of withheld evidence was the grand jury testimony of Maj. Harry Jones, one of the senior officers at the scene. In the testimony read into the record but not heard by the jurors, federal prosecutors showed Jones a now-famous photograph of Sgt. Myron Pryor standing in front of his men, intently pointing a .45-caliber pistol directed toward the students. The federal prosecutors asked Jones whether that picture depicted Pryor giving a hand and arm signal to fire, and Jones testified that, yes, it could have. Jones testified that you give an order by ``tap(ping) a man on the helmet and point to a specific point or target.''

Two other witnesses, both former soldiers who served in Vietnam (Harry Montgomery and Charles Deegan) testified to seeing Pryor tap other soldiers right before the unit about-faced and fired in unison.

This raises the question: Were the Kent State shootings never solved because other Guard officers gave the FBI false testimony that hand signals to fire did not exist, and the FBI never investigated this possibility?

We will never know, of course, unless some Guardsmen decide to speak out, probably for monetary gain. As one Guardsman asked me when I tried to get him to speak on the record: ``What about the bucks?''