This article originally appeared in the November 20, 2016 edition of History News Network.
C. D. "Gus" Lambros was the staunchest defender of the Ohio National Guard during the first few years after the killings at Kent State University. He successfully defended three of the shooters during the 1974 criminal trial, as well as Sergeant Myron Pryor. Pryor was not indicted after a book by Peter Davies accused him of launching a murderous conspiracy at Kent State.
Now, Lambros's granddaughter's husband, John Fitzgerald O'Hara, an associate professor with the American Studies and Writing Program at Stockton University in Galloway, New Jersey, has written the first thoughtful, independent analysis of the evidence since my own book was published in 1990.
The title of O'Hara's article, "The Man Who Started the Killings at Kent State," is a twist on my own chapter on the shootings, which ended: “Of course, no one was willing to confess. Which is understandable. After all, how would you like to go down in history as the man who started the killings at Kent State?”
O'Hara believes the Guardsmen were not innocent, but also says that Davies and Pryor's other accusers are overlooking exculpatory evidence. O'Hara particularly takes to task Davies and wounded survivor Alan Canfora, who once described Pryor as a beady-eyed, bald barbarian who now resides in Hell. As O'Hara points out, the evidence against Pryor "was never airtight or beyond a reasonable doubt."
O'Hara argues: “First, neither [Pryor] nor anyone else should be solely blamed for such a terrible event without a sober consideration of evidence. Second, pinning the shootings exclusively on Pryor may oversimplify the historical event.”
O'Hara feels that an assumption that Pryor was guilty “occludes other important lines of analysis which might point to other nefarious individuals and forces at work. This may lessen our ability to find a different culprit, or to recognize degrees and responsibilities spread among many individuals and groups, guardsmen and protestors, military and political leaders . . . Truth and justice with respect to Kent State remain important; however, neither is served by passing judgments unqualified by contradictory accounts and evidence.”
In making his case, O'Hara concedes that a famous photograph depicting Pryor standing several feet in front of the firing squad, intently pointing his pistol, may implicate Pryor as a shooter "despite his own assertion that the weapon was neither loaded or fired." Then, contradicting this conclusion, O'Hara cites a controversial 1974 conclusion by Electromagnetic Systems Laboratory (ESL), a forensics photographic lab commissioned by the Justice Department to analyze the evidence. ESL concluded Pryor's weapon was not fired and "that the slide was in fact in the locked position."
Moreover, O'Hara cites the claim by Pryor's superior, Captain Raymond Srp, that he inspected and sniffed Pryor's gun and determined it had not been fired. Pryor also passed three lie detector tests arranged by Lambros. (These tests were never introduced into evidence at the subsequent wrongful death and injury trial which named Pryor as a defendant. Polygraphs are inadmissible in federal courts.)
Without delving into all the nitty gritty details of O'Hara's first two arguments (including the question of whether Srp was friends with Pryor), O'Hara seems to be on much sounder ground when he points out that Pryor "had no official authority to issue an order to fire." The key word here, of course, is "official." As Davies pointed out, the soldiers seemed to have lost faith in their commanders, who marched them onto a practice football field, where they found themselves surrounded on three sides. After the trials, one shooter, Sgt. Lawrence Shafer, bitterly complained the shootings would have never happened if the general did not have "his head up his ass."
The commanding officers seemed to have lost control of the troops, who then started improvising by throwing rocks and gas canisters back at the students. The fact that Pryor was a noncommissioned officer does not negate the possibility that there was an unauthorized order to open fire, whether given by Pryor or someone else. Indeed, a 2010 study by forensics audio expert Stuart Allen, using the most sophisticated technology available today, noted that he enhanced the tape recording of the shooting, a voice could be heard giving such an order.
O'Hara doubts that Pryor gave this alleged order, writing that Pryor "was wearing a gas mask that would arguably muffle any verbal commands that he gave." The main point of his article was that an over-investment in "Myron Pryor as the centerpiece of a murderous conspiracy," makes us forget that there were multiple contributing causes of May 4, 1970, and leads us to overlook other scenarios explaining what actually precipitated the Guardsmen to open fire.
That may be, but it is also true that the other theories of what precipitated the shootings are fraught with far greater weaknesses than the theory that Pryor or another Guardsman issued an order to fire on Blanket Hill.
The possibility that there was a sniper was ruled out early in the investigation, although an undercover FBI photographer and part-time Kent State student was involved in a curious incident before the shooting broke out. As suspicious as his actions were (e.g., placing himself between the Guardsmen and the students and throwing rocks at the students), it is highly improbable that Terry Norman could have instigated the tragedy. Even if Norman fired four shots, as forensic expert Stuart Allen also concluded, it is illogical to believe that the Guardsmen, upon hearing these shots, waited a full 70 seconds before firing into the crowd. Even senior citizens do not have that slow a reaction time, and the Guardsmen, of course, were mostly in their twenties.
Moreover, the other much discussed scenario: that the Nixon White House orchestrated the shootings, requires manipulating so many people and so many events that it seems beyond the scope of human capacity. Certainly, suspicions swirled around the not-so-veiled threats to shoot protestors the day before it actually happened, at a press conference led by Ohio Governor James Rhodes. (At the time of the shootings, the governor was trying to get the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat in Ohio. Rhodes was behind in the polls, and preaching "law and order" to the masses.) However, after four and a half decades, no one has been able to produce one iota of evidence that the shootings were pre-planned. Indeed, it is one thing to say that Rhodes, as the Ohio National Guard commander-in-chief, set the tone that made the shootings possible, but quite another to say Rhodes or Nixon (or Nixon and Rhodes) gave any specific orders to kill students.
The spur-of-the-moment order to fire theory at least explains why an estimated half a dozen to ten Guardsmen simultaneously stopped, about-faced approximately 135 degrees, and fired a 13-second barrage at students who, according to a Justice Department report, were too far away to pose even a remote danger to the soldiers. When the shootings broke out, the Guardsmen were also just ten feet away from passing around the corner of Taylor Hall, where they would be beyond the protestor's field of vision. Any rocks would have just bounced off the corner of the building.
The much sought after "smoking gun" may still elude us, but the spur-of-the-moment order-to-fire theory still seems to be the least problematic, and the one most consistent with the eyewitness accounts.
O'Hara's article appears in the August issue of an online scholarly journal, The Sixties. It costs $43 to order it on the Internet, but I saved that by finding a friendly librarian who inter-library loaned the article to me.
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William A. Gordon is a journalist, Kent State graduate (class of 1973), and author of five books, including Four Dead in Ohio: Was There a Conspiracy at Kent State?
One of the things that surprised me about last year's Cleveland Plain Dealer exposes is that not a single Guardsman reacted to the news of Stuart Allen's findings. Over the weekend I came to understand why: some of them were unaware of his conclusions, and had nothing to react to.
I finally managed to get the first two interviews any journalist has had with former Ohio National Guardsman who were on Blanket Hill since Allen's conclusions were made public. The first, that is, since the Plain Dealer reported that Allen and another audio forensic specialist, Tom Owens, concluded there was a preliminary "prepare to fire" order to fire at Kent State (and Allen said there was an actual follow-up order).
Last weekend I spoke with both John E. Martin, the captain of Company A, the 145th Infantry; and one of his sergeants, Matthew McManus. McManus was one of the eight Guardsmen who were indicted by the Justice Department; in his case, he fired a shotgun into the air that may or may not have caused a student's wounds. (A second Guardsman, Leon Smith, was also charged with shooting the same student.). The case against McManus was always considered to be the weakest of the eight, and a federal judge later acquitted him and his fellow indictees of depriving the victims of due process of law.
Neither Martin nor McManus were familiar with the new findings and Martin stuck to the story he told all along: that he never gave nor heard any order to fire. McManus claimed the only order he ever heard was the one he admitted issuing long ago. After the firing had already started, McManus gave an order: “Fire over their heads” (the Justice Department’s version, or, as he tells it, “If you have to fire, for Christ’s sake, fire over their heads.”)
McManus also insisted that the order audio experts Stuart Allen and Tom Owens detected on the tape—“Prepare to fire,” was not an order that anyone in the military would give. After 40 years, he could not remember how a verbal order to fire should have been phrased, but he insisted “prepare to fire” was something one would only hear at a military funeral. In fact, McManus suggested that the words might have been uttered not by a Guardsman, but by a student protestor affiliated with the radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
This defense had been used once at the 1975 wrongful death and injury trial, when the Guards’ attorneys tried to pin the entire blame for the shooting on the students themselves. At one point the lawyers suggested that Charles Deegan, an ex-Marine who served in Vietnam and subsequently returned to Kent as a student, had heckled the Guard by shouting cadence and issuing fake orders for the troops to follow. Deegan denied the claim, which I always thought was ludicrous and an act of desperation on the attorneys' part. The claim also reminded me of something else said to me by another of the Guards’ attorneys: “Let’s face it. We’re paid hatchet men.”
Significantly, neither Martin nor McManus noticed Terry Norman on Blanket Hill. Martin said that several of his men heard a single shot prior to the main volley. McManus told me that just before shooting, he was on the far left of the Guard’s V-shaped formation (and on their far right after they turned around and fired). Before the shootings the only incident of note that he was aware of was between Major Harry Jones and a student who emerged from the crowd, threatening to throw a part of a torn-off tree branch at Jones and his communications officer. McManus said that Jones drew his pistol and told the student to stop. The shooting started shortly after that, and McManus said that that both he and Jones were “mad at the troops for firing.” McManus because, from his position, he could not see a reason to fire (although he was quick to defend his men by adding he could not see everything going on). He was also angry because he was in the line of fire and saw dirt kicking up within a few feet from where he was standing. (I had never heard that story before.) Jones, he said, was so mad he immediately and forcefully pushed the firing soldiers’ rifles in an upward position. We had known that for years. In fact, a private in McManus’ unit, Jeffrey Jones, told me years earlier that the first thing Jones demanded to know was: “Who gave you men the order to fire?”
As an sidenote, McManus added that on the afternoon of May 3, the day before the shootings, he, another Guardsmen, and some students played euchre and touch football on the practice football field by Taylor Hall.
McManus also felt “there is never going to be an end to” May 4 and alluded to "all the grief it brought to me,” including family turmoil he did not want to talk about.
McManus clearly was not close enough to see what was happening on the other side of the Guards' V-shaped formation, where Troop G of the 107th Armored Cavalry did most of the firing. If nothing else, the captain and the sergeant provided us a preview of what the National Guardsmen's defense strategy would have been had any official investigation had gone forward.
This blog is written by William A. Gordon, a Kent State alumnus and the author of "Four Dead in Ohio" and three other books. It offers commentary on the still unfolding developments in the Kent State shooting case.