Filed Date: July 5, 1979
Closed Date: May 27, 1983
Clearinghouse coding complete
This case is part of the Clearinghouse Special Collection on the events and litigation leading up to and surrounding the famous Selma-to-Montgomery marches of 1965.
On March 25, 1965, the famous Selma-to-Montgomery march concluded, bringing thousands of protesters to Montgomery seeking an end to racially discriminatory voting practices in Alabama. Viola Liuzzo wanted to support the protesters, and so she drove from her home in Michigan to Montgomery so that she could drive protesters back to Selma. During one of her trips between Selma and Montgomery, four Klansmen spotted her - a white woman - and another volunteer - a black man - sitting in the front. The Klansmen drove up to Liuzzo's car and shot her in the head. For more information on the murder and conspiracy trials that followed, see United States v. Wilkins.
The investigation into her murder revealed that one of the Klansmen, Gary Rowe, was in fact an FBI informant. During the previous trials, Rowe testified that he began his informant duties in 1960 or 1961, which required him to infiltrate the KKK. In 1975, the Senate Salect Committee to Study Governmental Operations commenced an investigation into the role of the FBI and Rowe during the civil rights movement. In the course of the investigation, Rowe testified that the FBI wanted Rowe to get closer to the violent events taking place, even if it meant he had to participate in them. He also testified that despite reporting on dozens of planned violent incidents to the FBI, the FBI prevented only two of them. As to the Liuzzo murder, Rowe testified that one of the other Klansmen involved called him that morning and told him that his "big day with the Klan had finally come," though the Klansmen disclosed no further details of what was planned at that point. The Committee's final report was issued in 1976.
Liuzzo's children then filed an administrative claim with the FBI on October 12, 1977. Before a final disposition was reached in the administrative proceedings, they brought this action against the FBI on July 5, 1979. They were represented by the ACLU. The plaintiffs alleged that the FBI was responsible for Liuzzo's murder and that they subsequently mishandled her body. Specifically, the plaintiffs argued that the FBI exercised direct, continuous, and complete control over Rowe during his time as an informant. The plaintiffs argued that the FBI knew or should have known that Rowe was not responsible enough as required by FBI policy and the FBI did not sufficiently train and supervise Rowe. The plaintiffs thus accused the FBI of negligence in authorizing Rowe to participate in the KKK's violence, including the activities leading to Liuzzo's murder. Further, they argued that Rowe's failure to prevent the murder was negligent and in violation of FBI policy as well as federal and state law. Finally, the plaintiffs argued that the FBI was negligent in handling Liuzzo's body after the murder, leading to emotional distress for her family. The plaintiffs brought this case under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), and they sought damages. The case was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.
The FBI moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the complaint was barred by a two year statute of limitations. The FBI claimed the cause of action began to accrue in 1965 after Liuzzo's murder, while the plaintiffs argued that their cause began to accrue in December 1975 after the Committee hearings when they discovered the causal link between FBI conduct and the murder. The plaintiffs also argued that they could not have discovered his causal link earlier because the FBI was actively concealing relevant information. The court denied the motion on February 29, 1980 (485 F. Supp. 1274), holding that the cause of action did not accrue until the injury was discovered. While the plaintiffs thought they knew the cause of Liuzzo's death almost immediately after the events, the court held that they had no reason to suspect FBI complicity with the Klansmen until Rowe's 1975 testimony. The court found that during the Klansmen trials, the FBI did not attempt to correct the conception of Rowe as a helpless bystander to the murder, and that it was not until 1975 that he revealed the FBI condoned his participation in the violence.
The FBI subsequently moved to dismiss again. Meanwhile, the plaintiffs moved to compel discovery of a relevant FBI report. The court denied both motions on Feb. 25, 1981 (508 F. Supp. 923). The court held that because the plaintiffs' claims alleged the FBI was directly rather than vicarious liable, the FTCA did not bar them. Further, the court held that the FTCA's liability exception for claims arising out of assault and battery did not apply because the plaintiffs' claims arose out of FBI conduct other than the murder itself. The court also held that the plaintiffs' claims attacked the implementation rather than the formation of FBI policy, and as such they were not clearly barred under the FTCA's exception for government discretion. Separately, the court denied the plaintiffs' motion to compel, finding that the report was privileged and its disclosure would jeopardize its current and future investigation processes.
Litigation continued, and on May 27, 1983, the court issued its final judgment (565 F. Supp. 640). The court held that the FBI was not liable because it was not negligent in directing Rowe to participate in the activities of March 25, 1965 leading to the murder. The court found that Rowe neither participated in or encouraged the shooting, and that the crime was able to solved so quickly because of Rowe's presence. It further found that the FBI's standard of care for authorizing informant activities was a matter of the FBI's discretion and so could not be the basis of liability. Rather, the court found the issue to be whether the particular FBI agent directing Rowe that day was acting as an ordinary and reasonably prudent agent would. The court held that the evidence suggested the directing agent did act reasonably given how critical information was to the FBI in assisting the civil rights movement, and that had he not allowed Rowe to accompany the Klansmen that day, the agent would have undermined the FBI's mission and the civil rights movement. The court also held that Rowe's failure stop the shooting did not generate liability because there was no evidence that the FBI or its agents were part of a conspiracy to shoot Liuzzo. Indeed, the court found that Rowe suggested other violence on Liuzzo instead of shooting her, and that this evidence suggested he was trying to pick the lesser of two wrongs in a tense situation.
The case is now closed. We have limited access to case records and information, and we will update this page if more become available.
Virginia Weeks (4/15/2018)
Joiner, Charles Wycliffe (Michigan)
Burkhalter, Donald R. (Mississippi)
Last updated June 29, 2023, 3:03 a.m.Docket sheet not available via the Clearinghouse.
State / Territory: Michigan
Filing Date: July 5, 1979
Closing Date: May 27, 1983
Case Ongoing: No
Viola Liuzzo's children
Public Interest Lawyer: Yes
Filed Pro Se: No
Class Action Sought: No
Class Action Outcome: Not sought
Causes of Action:
Prevailing Party: Defendant
Nature of Relief:
Source of Relief: