Huffpost Homepage

Civil Rights Leader Convicted of Incest

Posted: Updated:

LEESBURG, Va. — A jury convicted an iconic civil-rights figure of incest Thursday after concluding that he had sex with his teenage daughter 15 years ago. The Rev. James L. Bevel, 71, a top lieutenant to Martin Luther King Jr. who also helped organize the Million Man March, faces up to 20 years in prison when he is sentenced.

The four-day trial in Loudoun County Circuit Court included bizarre testimony about Bevel's philosophies for eradicating lust, and parents' duty to "sexually orient" their children.

Bevel's daughter testified that she was repeatedly molested by Bevel beginning when she was just 6 years old, culminating in an act of sexual intercourse in 1993 or 1994 that formed the basis of the incest charge.

The jury reached its verdict after about three hours of deliberations. It later recommended a 15-year prison sentence for Bevel. Jurors could have recommended a sentence ranging from five to 20 years. The judge can lower the recommendation, but he cannot increase it.

Before the verdict, the jury had heard only passing reference to Bevel's role in the civil rights movement. But during the sentencing phase of the trial Thursday afternoon, the jury saw a documentary that spelled out Bevel's key role in organizing the 1963 Birmingham Children's Crusade. Bevel and King were leading organizers of the marches, in which police turned fire hoses and dogs on child protesters, drawing international attention to the brutality that was keeping segregation in place in the South.

Bevel was also a leading organizer at other iconic events in the civil rights movement, including the 1965 march at Selma, Ala.

Prosecutor Nicole Wittmann acknowledged Bevel's accomplishments but said the jury shouldn't be swayed by them.

"There's nothing I can say to take away what this man has accomplished, but there are two Jim Bevels," Wittmann told the jury. "We're talking about the one who had sex with his child."

Jurors heard a phone call between Bevel and his daughter in which he never explicitly admits to sexual intercourse but seems to take for granted that it occurred. During the call he explains the importance of teaching his daughter "the science of marriage" and admits that he did not want her to get pregnant after the incident.

Family members who confronted Bevel in 2004 testified that Bevel read a written accusation by his daughter and replied that he did not contest the facts she laid out.

But Bevel denied the charge on the witness stand. He testified that his family mistakenly perceived his refusal to deny the specific allegations against him as an admission of guilt.

Public defender Bonnie Hoffman urged the jury to ignore evidence that Bevel led an unconventional, communal lifestyle in which he taught that it was parents' duty to "sexually orient" their children.

Instead, she told the jury to focus on the single incident for which Bevel was charged: an act of sexual intercourse that occurred in 1993 or 1994 while the daughter was a teenager and was living with her father in Leesburg.

Hoffman said there were questions about the timeline _ the daughter said she could not recall exactly what year the act occurred, and her recollection of when she lived in Virginia did not fully mesh with school records and other testimony.

Hoffman also questioned why the daughter returned to voluntarily live with her father after the alleged incest. The daughter testified that she went back because she had nowhere else to go.

Prosecutor Nicole Wittmann warned the jury against getting confused by Bevel's sometimes convoluted explanations of his philosophies and his justifications for his actions.

"There's no excuse for his philosophy in the law, or whether he's eccentric, or whether he's an historical figure. ... There's no exception" Wittmann said.

The Associated Press generally does not identify the victims of sexual abuse. The daughter is one of 16 children Bevel said he has had with several different women.

The trial divided members of Bevel's large family, with relatives testifying for both the prosecutor and defense.

Even the daughter expressed mixed emotions. As she waited Thursday for a verdict, she was occasionally joined by her father as the two smiled and cooed over the daughter's new baby girl _ Bevel's granddaughter.

"The hardest part is I love my father, and I wish he loved me as much as I love him," The daughter told jurors during the sentencing phase.

In the 1960s, Bevel was a leader in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), two of the stalwart organizations that led efforts to desegregate the South.

In 1992, he was vice presidential running mate to political maverick Lyndon LaRouche, who has a home in Loudoun County but at the time was in a federal prison for a tax conviction.