SELMA, Ala. -- Three veteran civil rights leaders were acquitted of federal election fraud charges Friday in a case that prompted national black leaders to accuse the government of harassing minority voters.
A federal court jury of seven blacks and five whites deliberated about four hours in a tiny Selma courtroom before finding Albert Turner, his wife Evelyn Turner and Spencer Hogue Jr. innocent of the charges.
Turner smiled, his wife burst into tears and Hogue hugged his lawyer when the verdicts were read.
Turner, a former aide to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., his wife and Hogue were accused of altering absentee ballots in the September 1984 Perry County Democratic primary.
U.S. District Judge Emmett Cox had dropped more than half the charges in a 29-count indictment against the trio for lack of evidence.
Defense lawyers claimed the Justice Department probe, which has led to five other indictments in Greene County, was intended to intimidate black voters and diminish minority political power in Alabama's Black Belt and throughout the South.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson and other national black leaders also portrayed the case as federal harassment of minority voters.
Defense attorney Dennis Balske urged the jury to 'let freedom ring' by acquitting the defendants, who helped organize the Selma-to-Montgomery march and other civil rights demonstrations that led to the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
'This case has historic importance. You will have a great deal of impact on our democracy in this area,' defense lawyer Morton Stavis told the jury in closing arguments Thursday.
'An American jury has spoken,' Stavis said after Friday's verdicts. 'I just hope the Reagan administration gets the message and takes steps to discontinue its remaining prosecutions, which are obviously designed to diminish black voting.'
Prosecutors claimed the Turners and Hogue, dubbed the 'Marion Three,' altered ballots in vendettas against local politicians who refused to give them patronage jobs.
Assistant U.S. Attorney E.T. Rolison denied there was a government 'witch hunt' and told the jury the defendants had lost sight of their purpose since working with King two decades ago, and had lied to cover their crimes.
'No man is above the law, no matter who his friends are, no matter who he marched with,' Rolison said. 'Somewhere along the way since 1965, something has changed.
'The worrying about getting people the right to vote has been distorted. They want control, not the right of their people to vote,' he said.
Prosecutors pointed to testimony from witnesses like an elderly woman who said Hogue learned of the FBI probe and asked her to help him cover up his alteration of her ballot.
Balske, Hogue's lawyer from the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, said such testimony was obtained because the FBI scared citizens during the probe and left some searching for ways to protect themselves so they would not be charged with crimes.
Defense attorneys said the government's case was 'a mass of confusion' that offered 'fairytale evidence, guesswork, speculation.'
The defendants never denied changing some ballots, but said they did so only at the request of voters.
Turner had faced 80 years in prison on the 16 charges against him, while his wife faced 70 years on 14 charges and Hogue faced 30 years on six charges.