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Hate-crime case award will be hard to collect, experts say


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10:00 PM PDT on Friday, August 24, 2007

By SEAN NEALON
The Press-Enterprise

Legal experts described last week's federal jury verdict involving a 1999 hate crime in Murrieta as uncommon because the defendants were not criminally charged.

They also questioned how much of the $1.2 million in damages will be collected because people targeted in such cases generally have few assets.

A man described as a recruiter for a white supremacist group and the parents and sisters of two men convicted of beating and slashing Randy Wordell Bowen, who is black, were ordered to pay damages. Andrew Roth, the Riverside-based lawyer who represents Bowen, said the defendants had conspired with the convicted men by letting them meet in their homes and use their computer to print newsletters.

Thomas Gruenbeck, the Irvine-based lawyer who represents the defendants, said he plans to challenge the jury's decision. He said there was not enough evidence of a conspiracy among the convicted men and his clients to target Bowen.

Bowen, an instructional aide for special needs children in the Murrieta Valley Unified School District, couldn't be reached for comment.

Collecting Damages

Two civil hate crime cases in Southern California worked on by James McElroy, a civil-rights lawyer in San Diego and board chairman of the Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center, show that it can be difficult, but not impossible, to collect damages.

McElroy won a $10 million verdict in the case of Carlos Colbert, a black Camp Pendleton Marine who was attacked and paralyzed by white men chanting "white power" at a 1998 party in San Diego. Colbert hasn't collected any of that money because the attacker is in prison and has no assets, McElroy said.

A $1.5 million settlement was also negotiated with others connected to the attack, including the owner of the home where the incident occurred, McElroy said. Some of that money has been collected through homeowners' insurance policies, he said.

McElroy also worked with the Southern Poverty Law Center to win a $12.5 million judgment in 1990 against Tom Metzger, the White Aryan Resistance leader, who formerly lived in Fallbrook in northern San Diego County. Metzger is still making monthly payments to the family of an Ethiopian man killed in Oregon by White Aryan Resistance members, McElroy said.

Like the six defendants in the Bowen case, Metzger was found liable despite not participating in the attack, McElroy said.

Roth said Bowen is likely to collect damages because many of the defendants are young and have years to earn money. He also said there is evidence that one of the defendants, Nancy Miskam, has property that, if sold, could be used to pay damages.

Gruenbeck said he doesn't expect Bowen will collect a penny from his clients. He said several are broke and that Miskam has debts greater than the value of her property.

Targeting Hate Groups

Civil hate-crime cases are often filed by organizations, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, to challenge hate groups, including the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nations, legal experts said.

Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino, said civil lawsuits can "deal a significant blow" to the leadership of hate groups and limit their orchestration of hate crimes.

Some men charged and sentenced in the Bowen case were admitted members of Western Hammerskins, a regional branch of an international white-supremacy group. Roth said he filed the suit to stop Western Hammerskins from operating in the Murrieta area.

Tim Hales, commander of the Murrieta-Temecula Regional Gang Task Force, said the prosecution and civil lawsuits against members and their families likely contributed to the declining visibility of Hammerskins.

Riverside County prosecutors called the attack on Bowen one of the worst racially motivated crimes in county history.

Bowen was struck in the head with a bottle and chased by a group of people -- many of whom shouted racial slurs and Nazi slogans -- during a 1999 bonfire party in the Temecula Valley Wine Country, prosecutors said at the time. He was then beaten and slashed across the back with a straight razor, prosecutors said.

In 2001 and 2002, six men charged in the beating were sentenced to prison terms ranging from four to 20 years.

The convicted men and three others involved in the attack but not criminally charged were subsequently sued in civil court and ordered by a judge to pay Bowen about $4.8 million in damages, Roth said.

Murrieta Civil Suit

Last week's jury verdict stemmed from a separate civil suit.

The jury ruled that five relatives of two of the convicted men, Travis Miskam and Gregory Allen McDaniel, and a Hammerskin recruiter, Bryan Byrne, must pay $1.2 million in damages, Roth said.

The relatives are: McDaniel's parents, Charles and Sandra Lee; Miskam's mother, Nancy; and his sisters, Tobi and Tiffany Miskam, Roth said.

He said Tobi and Tiffany Miskam were videotaped celebrating after the attack on Bowen. He also said Hammerskin meetings were held at the homes of Miskam and McDaniel's parents and the Hammerskin newsletter was printed on the McDaniels' computer.

Gruenbeck, the attorney for the six defendants, said the parents were unaware the hate group members was using the computer to produce the newsletter. He could not be reached Friday to comment about Tobi and Tiffany Miskam celebrating after the attack.Gruenbeck said he has asked his clients not to comment on the case.

To be liable, the six had to be aware of the hate group enterprise, including encouraging the behavior or promoting it, said John Nockleby, director of the Civil Justice Program at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. Not having all the facts in the Bowen case, Nockleby declined to comment on it.

Michael Marlatt, a Riverside-based civil-litigation lawyer, said he has not heard of a civil hate-crime verdict against relatives in the Inland area in his 23 years of practicing law in the region.

He said it's "extraordinarily rare" because people involved in such cases generally have few assets, and it can be difficult for lawyers to collect financial damages.

"You think, 'At the end of the day, what am I going to be able to recover from these people?' " Marlatt said.

Reach Sean Nealon at 951-375-3730 or snealon@PE.com

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