October 21, 1995 in Nation/World

Man Acquitted Of Burning High School Father Says Charges Revenge For Protests Over Plans To Discriminate At Prom

Ronald Smothers New York Times

The son of a black protest leader in the tiny community of Wedowee, Ala., was acquitted in a federal court here Friday of setting the fire that destroyed the town’s high school, which had become a locus of bitter racial divisions.

As the jury’s verdict was read, the 25-year-old defendant, Christopher Lynn Johnson, closed his eyes, and his shoulders seemed to heave with a deep sigh. He hugged jubilant relatives, then sped from the courtroom, declining to comment on the case or the verdict.

But his father, the Rev. Emmett Johnson, was not so reticent.

The elder Johnson angrily maintained that the case had marked his son for life and had been an effort by the federal authorities to punish himself and other leaders of a protest by blacks seeking the dismissal of the school’s principal, Hulond Humphries, a 56-year-old white man who, only months before the fire, had drawn national attention with his threat to call off the 1994 spring prom if interracial couples made plans to attend.

“His whole life is ruined,” Johnson said of his son. “He has been accused of a crime in a small town and a small county. It matters that the law has found him innocent, but it’s not going to matter in the minds of the people.”

The jurors - eight whites and four blacks - took about four hours to find Christopher Johnson not guilty of setting the fire, which destroyed Randolph County High School on Aug. 6, 1994, and of possessing a destructive device.

The jurors were not sequestered during the four-day trial but were brought to court each day, in vans driven by federal marshals, from an undisclosed location.

After the verdict Friday, they were just as secretly whisked away.

In Wedowee, about 100 miles northeast of Montgomery, few people took much notice of the trial’s outcome.

Dale McKay, superintendent of the Randolph County school system, and others in Wedowee said whites and blacks alike wanted to forget about the racial hostilities of last year, although they acknowledged that at least one concern lingered.

“If he’s innocent,” McKay said of Johnson, “there’s somebody somewhere that’s guilty.”

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