Lawyers for John W. Perdew '64 and three other students imprisoned in Americus, Ga., will file a suit today in a Federal District Court charging a "conspiracy" among state and local officials to thwart the desegregation campaign in Americus.
The suit claims that the officials have arbitrarily invoked vague and unconstitutional criminal statutes to block voter registration drives and other attempts to secure constitutional rights for Sumter County residents. It accuses the officials of participating in "a willful, unlawful and openly avowed scheme, plan and conspiracy" against desegregation activities.
New Legal Approach
Michael Meltsner, a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund which is initiating the action, yesterday called the suit "novel, to say the least." If successful, the suit will establish an important legal precedent to be used against public officials throughout the South who continue to suppress civil rights activity.
The legal action seeks the release of Perdew, Don Harris, Ralph Allen and Thomas McDaniel, who have been held in Sumter County jail since their arrest Aug. 8. The four are workers for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. A fifth SNCC worker, Sallie Mae Durham, was turned over to juvenile authorities when she was discovered to be 14.
A suit identical to the NAACP complaint was filed yesterday on behalf of a sixth prisoner, Zev Aelony, by his lawyer, Morris Abram. Aelony is a representative of the Congress of Racial Equality. It is planned that the two suits will be consolidated, and considered together.
The complaint, to be filed with District Judge J. Robert Elliott in Albany, Ga., asks that a three-judge panel hear the case, instead of the usual single judge.
Elliott a pro-Segregationalist
Judge Elliot, an appointee of President Kennedy, is known for his prosegregation views; the request for three judges is an attempt to balance Elliott's influence. In addition, an appeal on a case heard by three judges by-passes the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and goes directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Meltsner explained that the suit is based on the contention that officials are making "punitive and arbitrary use of state criminal laws." He said that states have an interest in keeping order, and the ordinary procedure is to appeal a criminal conviction after an initial judgment has been made by the lowest court.
In this instance, Meltsner said, Georgia is interested not in the prosecution of criminals, but in the suppression of civil rights agitation. The suit, therefore, asks the immediate release of the four students, three of whom are charged with incitement to insurrection under a state statute whose constitutionality is widely questioned.
The suit also asks the court to restrain local officials from intimidating or obstructing the efforts of citizens to register and vote, and from interfering in the pursuit of other constitutional rights.
The action initiated today is entirely separate from attempts to secure a writ of habeas corpus from the Georgia Supreme Court. "It is another way of doing the same thing," Meltsner said. He noted that the five defendants have already spent two months in jail, on extremely suspicious evidence. The state grand jury will not meet until November, and if indicted, the students will not stand trial until several months after that.
Bail Too High
"Every day they spend in jail is punishment without any kind of probable cause," Meltsner said. He said that if the students were out on ball, their lawyers would wait until the trial to attack the enforcement of the insurrection statute. Unusual measures are being taken because local officials show no dispensation to issue a writ of habeas corpus, or set reasonable bail for the prisoners, Meltsner said.