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Profile: Morris Dees

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Morris Dees was a participant or observer in the following events:

Alan Berg.Alan Berg. [Source: Denver Post]Alan Berg, a Jewish, progressive talk show host for Denver’s KOA 850 AM Radio, is gunned down in his driveway as he is stepping out of his car. The murder is carried out by members of the violent white-supremacist group The Order (see Late September 1983), a splinter group of the Aryan Nations white nationalist movement. Berg, who was described as often harsh and abrasive, regularly confronted right-wing and militia members on his show. Federal investigators learn that The Order’s “hit list” includes Berg, television producer Norman Lear, a Kansas federal judge, and Morris Dees, a civil rights lawyer and co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Radio producer Anath White later says that some of Berg’s last shows were particularly rancorous, involving confrontational exchanges with anti-Semitic members of the Christian Identity movement (see 1960s and After). “That got him on the list and got him moved up the list to be assassinated,” White will say. (McClary 12/6/2006; Flynn 5/1/2007; Denver Post 6/18/2009)
Preparing for the Murder - Order leader Robert Jay Mathews had already sent a colleague to Denver to determine if Berg was a viable target (see May 17, 1984). The four members of the assassination team—Mathews, Bruce Pierce, David Lane, and Richard Scutari—assemble at a local Motel 6 to review their plans. Pierce, the assassin, has brought a .45 caliber Ingram MAC-10 submachine gun for the job. All four men begin to surveill Berg’s townhouse.
Gunned Down - At 9:21 p.m., Berg drives his Volkswagen Beetle into his driveway. Lane, the driver, pulls up behind him. Mathews leaps out of the car and opens the rear door for Pierce, who jumps out and runs up the driveway. Berg exits his vehicle with a bag of groceries. Pierce immediately opens fire with his submachine gun, pumping either 12 or 13 bullets into Berg’s face and body before the gun jams. (Sources claim both figures of bullet wounds in Berg as accurate.) Pierce and Mathews get back into their car, rush back to the Motel 6, gather their belongings, and leave town. Three of the four members of the “hit squad” will soon be apprehended, charged, and convicted. Pierce is sentenced to 252 years in prison, including time for non-related robberies, and will die in prison in 2010; Lane is given 150 years, and will die in prison in 2007. Neither man is prosecuted for murder, as the evidence will be determined to be inconclusive; rather, they will be charged with violating Berg’s civil rights. Scutari, accused of serving as a lookout for Pierce, and Jean Craig, accused of collecting information on Berg for the murder, will both be acquitted of culpability in the case, but will be convicted of other unrelated crimes. Mathews will not be charged due to lack of evidence of his participation; months later, he will die in a confrontation with law enforcement officials (see December 8, 1984). (Flynn 5/1/2007; Denver Post 6/18/2009; Pankratz 8/17/2010) In sentencing Pierce to prison, Judge Richard Matsch will say of the murder, “The man [Berg] was killed for who he was, what he believed in, and what he said and did, and that crime strikes at the very core of the Constitution.” (Pankratz 8/17/2010)
Re-Enacting a Fictional Murder? - Some will come to believe that the assassins may have attempted to re-enact the fictional murder of a Jewish talk-show host depicted in The Turner Diaries (see 1978). (Flynn 5/1/2007; Estes 11/30/2007)
'Opening Shot ... of a Truly Revolutionary Radical Right' - Mark Potok of the SPLC will characterize Berg’s murder as an early event leading to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995). “In a sense, it was one of the opening shots of a truly revolutionary radical right,” Potok will say, “perfectly willing to countenance the mass murder of American civilians for their cause.” (Denver Post 6/18/2009) Berg’s ex-wife, Judith Berg, will travel around the country in the years after her ex-husband’s murder, speaking about what she calls the “disease and anatomy of hate,” a sickness that can infect people so strongly that they commit horrible crimes. In 2007, she will tell a reporter that Berg’s murder was a watershed event that inspired more hate-movement violence. “What happened to Alan in the grown-up world has reached into the youth culture,” she will say. “It opened the door to an acceptance of violence as a means of acting on hate.… While our backs are turned toward overseas, hate groups are having a heyday. People are very unhappy; they’re out of work and jobs are scarce. They’re ripe for joining extremist groups. We need to understand what happened to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” (Flynn 5/1/2007) White later says of Pierce, Lane, and their fellows: “It’s left me to wonder what makes somebody like this. I think these people didn’t have much opportunity in their lives and scapegoat. They blame others for not making it.” (Pankratz 8/17/2010)

Richard P. Matsch.Richard P. Matsch. [Source: Washington Post]The Tenth Circuit of Appeals removes Oklahoma District Judge Wayne E. Alley from the Oklahoma City bombing case (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995 and August 10, 1995), and assigns US District Judge Richard P. Matsch of Denver to preside over the trial. (Thomas 12/5/1995; Douglas O. Linder 2001) “We conclude that a reasonable person could not help but harbor doubts about the impartiality of Judge Alley,” the court rules. (Stickney 1996, pp. 261) Alley’s offices were damaged in the blast, as was the entire courthouse, which stands less than 1,000 feet from the Murrah Building. Alley had a staff member injured in the bombings, and at least 33 of the victims conducted business regularly in the courthouse. Some judges helped in the rescue efforts; some judges attended as many as seven funerals. An employee in the court clerk’s office lost her child in the blast, and many court employees were injured either in the blast itself or in the aftermath. Fundraising drives for the victims and their families were held in the courthouse, and a popular T-shirt being sold features a law enforcement badge and the inscription, “In Memory, April 19, 1995, Oklahoma City.” The appeals court feels Alley risks having his impartiality questioned, and notes that both prosecuting and defense attorneys have requested his removal. (Serrano 1998, pp. 254; Douglas O. Linder 2001) In his request for Alley’s removal, defense lawyer Stephen Jones told reporters: “Judge Alley has a distinguished military, professional, and judicial career. Anyone who appears before him has the highest respect for him personally and professionally. However, our belief is that a victim of a traumatic incident cannot sit as a judge in a trial where the person accused of creating the incident is on trial. No one of us would want to be judged by such an individual.” (New York Times 8/23/1995) US Attorney Patrick M. Ryan also asked that Alley step aside. In court papers, Ryan noted that there was no legal requirement that he do so, but stated that “[i]t is of paramount importance that the nation have complete confidence in the integrity of the verdict ultimately reached in this case, and that partisan detractors not be permitted—however wrongly—to raise questions about judicial fairness. There is too much at stake here to risk even an erroneous reversal, with all its attendant costs to the people of the United States, and most importantly, to the victims of this terrible crime. Failure to recuse could cause delay, uncertainty, and unwarranted focus on a matter that is collateral to the overriding issue of these defendants’ guilt or innocence.” (Labaton 9/9/1995) Alley, who unsuccessfully fought to keep the case, wrote in a court filing regarding his removal, “The judge who succeeds to this case will have to bear a dreadful burden, and I wish him or her well.” Matsch has experience in similar trials; in 1987, he presided over the civil rights trial of four members of the white supremacist group The Order, who murdered progressive radio talk show host Alan Berg (see June 18, 1984 and After). He is known as a stickler for punctuality and order in his courtroom, brooking little nonsense from lawyers on either side of the case. Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which monitors white supremacist and military groups, calls Matsch’s selection “poetic justice.” Defense lawyers for both Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols say they are comfortable with Matsch presiding over the trials of their clients. (Thomas 12/5/1995; Serrano 1998, pp. 255)

Three men affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan are arrested in Illinois on weapons charges. The three, along with three others arrested later, are accused of plotting to murder a federal judge and civil rights lawyer Morris Dees; blow up the Southern Poverty Law Center, which Dees co-founded, and other buildings; poison water supplies; and rob banks. The six will receive terms of up to seven years in prison. (Southern Poverty Law Center 6/2001)


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