Justice Dept. won't reopen Kent St. shootings case

The U.S. Justice Department, citing "insurmountable legal and evidentiary barriers," won't reopen its investigation into the deadly 1970 shootings by Ohio National Guardsmen during a Vietnam War protest at Kent State University.

Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez discussed the obstacles in a letter to Alan Canfora, a wounded student who requested that the investigation be reopened. The Justice Department said Tuesday it would not comment beyond the letter.

Four Kent State students died, and nine were hurt in the shootings, which contributed to the change in the public's attitude toward the war.

Canfora, who now directs the Kent May 4 Center, said the government's decision is disappointing but not surprising.

The events of that chaotic day in Kent, Ohio, are still not fully understood, and interest in the case was reignited recently because of a recently enhanced audio recording.

A 2010 analysis of the recording concluded that someone may have ordered National Guard troops to prepare to fire on students during the campus protest. But Perez wrote to Canfora that a government review was inconclusive in determining whether the recording provided such evidence.

The original reel-to-reel audio recording was made by Terry Strubbe, a student who placed a microphone in a window sill of his dormitory that overlooked the anti-war rally. Canfora found a copy of the audio tape in a library archive in 2007.

The recording was enhanced and evaluated by Plainfield, N.J.-based audio experts Stuart Allen and Tom Owen at the request of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. Both concluded that they hear someone shout, "Guard!" Seconds later, a voice yells, "All right, prepare to fire!"

"Get down!" someone shouts, presumably in the crowd. A voice then says, "Guard! ..." followed two seconds later by a booming volley of gunshots.

Allen removed extraneous noises — wind blowing across the microphone, for example — that obscured voices on the recording.

Allen's review also had uncovered four "thuds" more than a minute before the guardsmen opened fire, which he believed could have been the sound of a revolver firing.

In the letter, Perez said the sounds were likely Strubbe's door opening and closing. That conclusion is consistent with voices inside Strubbe's room, Perez said.

On the issue of a command to fire, Perez said the government's analyst showed "no military-like voice commands to fire or otherwise were heard; rather, many of the words heard were probably uttered by several different individuals located closer to the microphone."

Canfora wrote a letter to Perez on Monday and shared it with The Associated Press. In it, Canfora wrote that he was disappointed but not surprised by the government's decision, and he renewed his call for an outside review.

"I request your further independent investigation utilizing more objective analysis of this crucial digital, forensic evidence," Canfora said. Otherwise, Canfora said he would proceed with his own investigation into a possible command to "fire."

In 1974, eight guardsmen tried on federal civil rights charges were acquitted by a judge.