Atlanta — Fairness has surfaced as a key issue in a controversial federal probe of alleged voter fraud by blacks in Alabama. Three blacks, including a former colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., were acquitted Friday of charges of altering absentee ballots. Four more blacks and a white closely aligned with them are scheduled to go on trial in late July.
Justice Department spokesman Joe Krovisky said Monday the department was ``going to go forward'' with prosecution of the remaining five who have been indicted.
But critics of the probe, both black and white, charge that the United States Justice Department has not pursued alleged voter fraud by whites as vigorously as it is now pursing the alleged voter fraud by blacks. The Justice Department has denied the charge.
Now, a group of blacks is suing US Attorney General Edwin Meese III, his civil rights division chief William Bradford Reynolds, and other federal officials. The group says the probe and the way it is being carried out are likely to discourage some blacks from voting.
At the heart of the investigation is the absentee ballot, which is heavily used in the rural Alabama counties under scrutiny. Because many people in these counties commute outside the county to jobs, or are aged or otherwise unable to get to polling places, many residents vote by absentee ballot. As a result, winning the absentee vote can make the difference in a close election.
The federal government had alleged that in some cases the ballots were changed by black party activists after a person voted. In other cases, it charged that the ballots had never reached the voter but were marked anyway by some of the blacks indicted.
Since the Voting Rights Act passed 20 years ago, the Justice Department has been much more willing to prosecute blacks than whites under the act, says Laughlin McDonald, director of the Southern office of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center are representing the plaintiffs in the suit against the Justice Department.
A Justice Department spokesman says the department's voter-fraud investigations have targeted whites, blacks, and other races in all parts of the country.
Roy Johnson, an Alabama district attorney who has investigated the allegations of black voter fraud in Perry County, Ala., says: ``Since I've become DA in 1981 I have found no instances of whites violating the voting laws.'' He says he has one investigator working on a 1982 case against a white for voter fraud, but it's ``still in embryo state.''
But the investigation of the nine Perry and Greene County residents moved much faster. Numerous FBI agents have investigated the charges stemming from the 1984 election, and one trial just ended in Selma, Ala. Another is scheduled to start this month in Birmingham.
In Selma, a federal court jury of seven blacks and five whites Friday acquitted Albert Turner, his wife Evelyn Turner, and Spencer Hogue Jr. Defense attorneys had called Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young and other character witnesses to testify that Mr. Turner has worked more than 20 years to help blacks gain access to the ballot in the Deep South.
Steve Suitts, executive director of the Southern Regional Council, which researches poverty and race issues, contends that the federal probe has been conducted in a way that is ``an abomination.'' The questioning by FBI agents has frightened some elderly voters, he says. He says other issues such as voter registration barriers are more important than the absentee-ballot fraud allegations.
Mr. Johnson says he has seen no evidence of intimidation by federal officials. And the investigation will not discourage black voters from voting, he predicts. The alleged ballot manipulation is ``wrong'' and had to be stopped to ensure the right of voters to not have their ballots changed, he says.
Those on both sides of the controversy said a struggle between black factions for local political power is part of the problem. An unusual twist in the case is that the principal accusers of the blacks are themselves black, including some incumbent officials.
``I think you have some internal tension between blacks in those communities,'' says Charles Prejean, a member of the Alabama Black Defense Committee, set up to help those under indictment. ``Whichever side comes out the winner, it's not the end of the struggle.''
One faction is closely aligned with whites, creating some animosity, according to members of both sides. Mr. Prejean says he hopes the whites and blacks of goodwill who are not now cooperating will come together to ``forge new coalitions. I don't think we can resolve anything by going for the jugular each time.''