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Cross Burning Convictions Upheld

The Supreme Court on Monday maintained that cross burning can be considered arson, leaving intact the convictions of three North Carolina men who burned crosses on the lawn of their interracial neighbors.

The lawyers for the trio had argued that a federal anti-arson law was wrongly used to add five years to each man's prison term, and that the convictions violated their free speech rights. Without comment, the court rejected that argument and let the convictions stand.

Alfred and Eugene Smith and Martin King lived in rural Haywood County, N.C., across the street from Gordon Cullins, who is black, and Hazel Sutton, who is white.

Unhappy about an interracial couple in the neighborhood, the three men decided on New Year's Eve 1992 to burn crosses on their neighbors' front lawn. When Cullins and Ms. Sutton returned home, they saw the crosses smoldering in their yard and heard racial slurs yelled by the three men.

King and the Smiths were indicted in 1996 and charged with intimidation, conspiring to violate their neighbors' civil rights, and use of fire during a felony.

Conviction on the last charge added five years to each man's sentence. King received six years in prison, Alfred Smith got six years and nine months, and his brother Eugene was sentenced to 15 years.

In the appeals lawyers for the three argued that the anti-arson law should not have been used in connection with an illegal conspiracy because the conspiring occurred without use of fire. They also contended that use of the anti-arson law violated free-speech rights because of "the expressive conduct conveyed in cross-burning."

Justice Department lawyers urged the court to reject those arguments contending that the cross burning furthered the illegal conspiracy. Because the men could not have achieved the object of their agreement without igniting the crosses, the government lawyers said, "they used fire to commit the underlying civil rights violations."

Federal lawyers also argued the free-speech claims had no merit, "It is well established that the First Amendment does not protect threats and intimidation," they said. Justices agreed.