Silkwood trial still stirs emotions

Gene Triplett Published: December 16, 1999
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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.


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