Federal Judge Awards Damages in Chicago Cross-Burning at Biracial Home

A federal judge in June ordered $255,151 in damages be paid to a Ravenswood neighborhood family targeted in a cross-burning incident in 1990. In the decision, U.S. District Judge Milton Shadur ordered the defendants, William Smith, Kevin O'Brien, Brian Em berton and Emberton's parents, David and Julia, to pay damages to Tina Johnson's family. Ms. Johnson is white and her children and daughter-in-law are African-American.

In 1992, the Johnson family filed a lawsuit against five suspects charged with setting a cross aflame on their front lawn. The case was filed by the Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal. The suit alle ged violations of Section 818 of the Fair Housing Act, Sections 1982 and 1985, and the Illinois Hate Crime statute.

Emberton's parents, who were not charged in the separate criminal action, were named in the Johnson family's lawsuit under a statue that holds parents responsible for a minor's actions, said Betsy Shuman-Moore, a Rogers Park attorney with the civil right s group.

The criminal and civil cases stem from the events of August 15, 1990. Awakened by her dog, around 3:20 a.m., Tina Johnson saw a cross burning on her lawn and a window smashed. Two bleach bottles were also on fire.

The lengthy Cook County criminal actions stretched from October 1991 to March 1995. Four of the five suspects involved in the cross-burning were convicted of misdemeanor ethnic intimidation and given probation. A fifth defendant, who was 16 at the tim e of the incident, was sentenced to 30 days juvenile detention, 18 months probation and was ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, according to the Lerner News-Star.

Assistant State's Attorney, Caren Armbrust, accused Smith of pounding the cross into the ground and lighting it after someone else doused it with gasoline.

"I don't feel good" about Smith's sentence, Johnson said. "That's no punishment. That's not the way it's supposed to be." Johnson, an Italian-American who emigrated to the United States in 1961 after marrying a Black GI, said she may sell her house of seven years.

Mark Almberg, one of a group of residents who attended every court date from the beginning, expressed disappointment at what he called a "very light sentence that can only be interpreted as a slap on the wrist."

As a result of the incident, the Johnsons suffered severe emotional distress. Johnson's son and daughter-in-law moved after the incident and she is attempting to sell her house. Even though most of Ms. Johnson's neighbors are "really nice people, I'm af raid to live here now," she said. "I have to work every day. I come home late. I don't know what people are going to do."

Shadur's June 15 order said the feeling "caused by race-based refusals to deal in the housing market must pale beside the terror and other emotional distress naturally induced by being awakened in the middle of the night by a cross burning on one's lawn and a brick through one's window." He ordered the defendants, O'Brien, Smith, Emberton and Emberton's parents to pay the Johnsons $87,151 in actual damages for emotional distress, property damage, and lost income and $168,000 in punitive damages.

The cross-burning "was a terrorist act that would traumatize anybody," Almberg said. " The family was subjected to vandalism and racial taunts while the suspects were free to roam about and do what they wanted."

Johnson's son, Steve, testified that acts of harassment continued several months after the cross-burning. Family cars were vandalized - in one case, the dashboard wiring under the hood was torn out - and racial epithets were scrawled on the curb.

[Johnson v. Smith, No. 92C5495 (N.D. Ill. 6-15-95)]