THE tense silence in the crowded courtroom was pierced by the cry of a baby, quickly hushed.
When the verdict was read finding Kerr-McGee Corp. liable and negligent in Karen Silkwood's plutonium contamination, gasps and whispers filled the air.
When the bailiff announced the damages - $505,000 in actual and $10 million punitive - there were those among the 200 people present who swore they heard thunder roll above the skylight. And when U.S. District Judge Frank G. Theis excused the six-man, six-woman jury that had deliberated for four days, half the room came to its feet to cheer the panel's decision.
Lead Silkwood attorney Gerry Spence, of Jackson Hole, Wyo., would later say that the voice of the infant in the silence preceding the verdict was "a real sign for me that babies may have a chance in this nuclear age."
And thus ended the 11-week federal court trial in Oklahoma City that had become the nationwide cause celebre of anti-nuclear activists, environmentalists, women's rights activists and the labor movement.
"Yeah, I remember hearing that," James Ikard, one of the Oklahoma City attorneys representing the Silkwood estate, said Wednesday. "It was weird. As the verdict was being read there was a thunderstorm outside.... There was a roll of thunder as the verdict was being read. No one was breathing in the courtroom, either. All the air got sucked out."
It was Nov. 18, 1979, a little more than four years to the day after Silkwood, an employee at Kerr-McGee's Cimarron nuclear plant near Crescent, was killed in a mystery-shrouded car crash.
Meryl Streep, who portrayed the woman in the 1983 film, "Silkwood," will help commemorate the 25th anniversary of Silkwood's death in a special tribute Friday in New York. Proceeds from the tribute - which will feature appearances by the film's director, Mike Nichols, and Silkwood's father, Bill - will benefit Just Health Care Campaign, a union-sponsored health-care reform program.
A 28-year-old mother of three, Silkwood had become a union activist at the plant and was sleuthing for safety and security violations for the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union at the time of her death.
She was on her way to meet with a New York Times reporter the night of Nov. 13, 1974, purportedly with documents showing lax security at the facility, when her car careened into a culvert on the highway south of Crescent. No documents were recovered from the wreck.
Silkwood had become contaminated by plutonium before the accident. Her Edmond apartment also was found to be contaminated.
Her union and environmental activism had put her at odds with Kerr-McGee, whose subsidiary ran the plutonium processing plant.
Police ruled it as a single-car accident, and a medical examiner's autopsy showed 0.35 milligrams of the sedative methaqualone in her bloodstream.
Her supporters, attorneys and various private investigators have contended she was bumped off the road by another vehicle, making her a murder or manslaughter victim.
The Oklahoma Highway Patrol said she had fallen asleep at the wheel, but that finding was later dismissed by the U.S. Justice Department for insufficient evidence. The circumstances surrounding her death remain a mystery.
Silkwood's father, Bill, of Nederland, Texas, filed a $71 million lawsuit against Kerr-McGee in 1976 on behalf of her three small children, after the company refused to pay the family $5,000 for the personal belongings they had removed from his daughter's apartment.
Before the case came to trial, the court dismissed a portion of the lawsuit claiming Kerr-McGee had violated Silkwood's civil rights by putting her under surveillance - including wire-tapping - because of her union activities.
The Silkwood attorneys - which included Ikard, Arthur Angel, Washington attorney Danny Sheehan and Spence - forged ahead with the personal injury case before Judge Theis, of Kansas.
"This is after all the federal judges in Oklahoma disqualified," Ikard said.
The trial began in March 1979 under the scrutiny of local and national press, which quickly picked up on the contrast between the flamboyant, Stetson-wearing, buckskin-jacketed Gerry Spence, and the gray- suited Kerr-McGee attorneys led by William Paul.
The company's defense was that Silkwood was the conduit of plutonium that had been removed from the fuel rod fabrication plant, and that she had caused her own contamination, possibly by spiking her urine samples.
Company officials argued that safety and security were priorities at the plant, which they said was in "substantial compliance" with federal regulations.
Dean A. McGee, co-founder and at that time chairman of the board of Kerr-McGee, took the stand to say his firm ran a safe nuclear fuel plant, despite 75 federal violation citations it received for "low level violations."
McGee also testified equal opportunity rules prohibited Kerr-McGee from making security clearance investigations of its workers.
"You had to employ people in that plant without really being able to check their background," McGee said.
Silkwood had reported to work three days in a row showing contamination, during a period of tense union contract negotiations in November 1974. Kerr-McGee acknowledged it was the firm's plutonium found in Silkwood's apartment, but they claimed she smuggled it home in an attempt to embarrass the company.
Ultimately, Theis ruled that the Silkwood attorneys didn't have to prove how the plutonium got to her apartment.
"If the lion gets away Kerr-McGee must pay," was the catchphrase Spence intoned repeatedly to the jury during closing arguments.
Spence was constantly angering Kerr-McGee attorneys with his poetics and pronunciations throughout the trial, causing numerous objections and trips to the bench to confer out of the jury's hearing.
The effusive Spence often angered his own co-counselors, calling news conferences to emphasize the importance of recent testimony and the trial as a whole.
"Gerry is an incredibly gifted trial lawyer," Ikard said. "Notwithstanding the buckskin jacket and cowboy hat and all that, he had tried hundreds of trials. So he was very, very experienced, he knew exactly what he was doing.
"He was after this case, I think because he had become very prominent in the Rocky Mountain area, but really was looking for a bigger stage. Because it did have national notoriety and it was the subject of a lot of interest."
Heightening interest in the trial even more was the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster, and the release of "The China Syndrome," a hit movie about a fictional nuclear plant melt-down.
Judge Theis forbade jurors from viewing the movie or listening to or reading any accounts of the Pennsylvania nuclear accident.
When the verdict was delivered, Spence called it "the great verdict for the American people."
The $10.5 million judgment was eventually litigated down to $1.38 million.
Looking back, Ikard said, "It was the first case to find that a nuclear facility was an ultra-hazardous activity, and you didn't need to prove negligence if you got hurt," Ikard said. "The second thing is, a nuclear plant, regulated, could nevertheless be assessed punitive damages.
"Very important for all sorts of other industries as well as nuclear."
Ikard said the outcome of the trial "put the nuclear industry on a slippery slope. And it was really from then on a downward spiral for the nuclear industry."
At the time, Kerr-McGee attorney William Paul said the verdict "will mean each individual jury in each case becomes the standards-setter and government regulations are no more than opinion."
Kerr-McGee co-counsel Bill Zimmerman said the verdict indicated "regulations do not constitute any sort of acceptable rule you can follow. Anyone who is in industry is operating at their peril."
On Wednesday, Kerr-McGee manager of external communications, Debbie Schramm said, "The issue was settled years ago and there's just nothing new for us to add."
Gene Triplett covered the Silkwood trial for The Oklahoma Journal and Reuters.Archive ID: 788405