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Norman was a junior at the University when soldiers from the Ohio National Guard killed four students and wounded others during a May 4, 1970 protest. Norman was present at the protest and was photographing the demonstrators for both the campus police and the FBI, a fact that was initially denied by both agencies but later confirmed.
After the shooting, Sylvester Del Corso, the Ohio National Guard's top general, released a public statement claiming that Norman had admitted firing four shots at the demonstrators in self-defense. He later backed off from that statement.
There were several reasons why Norman was suspected of starting the tragedy:
- Norman was the only person on campus other than a Guardsman known to have been armed with a weapon;
- The Guard continued to insist that a single shot of unknown origin preceded the 13-second volley of gunfire; and
- There had been a previous and never-fully-explained incident on Blanket Hill in which Norman drew his gun and pointed it at students. Norman had scuffled with some fellow students and reportedly drawn his gun before being chased by several men across the campus to the campus police and National Guard. One of his pursuers, graduate student Harold Reid, yelled, "Stop that man! He has a gun."
First investigations of Norman's role
The FBI squelched speculation of Norman's involvement by announcing that Norman's gun had never been fired. However, the issue of his role on May 4 was revived three years later. Peter Davies, the author of the book The Truth About Kent State, and William A. Gordon, a journalist for the college's student newspaper and the future author of Four Dead in Ohio, reported that there were three additional witnesses who said they had heard either Norman admitting, "I had to shoot", or a Kent State police detective exclaim, "My God, he fires his gun fourteen times. What the hell do we do now?"
In the wake of this new evidence, a Congressional subcommittee overseeing the Justice Department and the Justice Department itself began reviews of the case. Once news of the investigation broke, John Martin, the captain of one of the National Guard units that fired, came forward with the statements of his men, including one who thought he overheard Norman admit shooting a person. That revelation in return resulted in an accusation by Senator Birch Bayh that Norman may have been "the fatal catalyst" of the tragedy.
At the time Norman was accused of starting the Kent shootings, there were not any witnesses who actually saw him fire his .38 gun, much less shoot a student. All the witnesses who thought they heard either Norman or the detective say that Norman had fired four shots had been at the university's ROTC building, approximately one hundred yards from the shooting.
After the accusations had been made, John Dunphy of the Akron Beacon Journal wrote several articles that seemed to exonerate Norman. Dunphy interviewed a new witness, Tom Masterson, who admitted he was the student who had attacked Norman. Masterson also supported Norman's claim that he had only drawn his gun after the shootings and in self-defense.
An audio analysis commissioned by the Justice Department of the 68 shots fired at Kent that day appeared to further exonerate Norman. The analysis, performed for the Justice Department by the Massachusetts firm Bolt, Beranek and Newman (the same firm that discovered the 181⁄2 minute gap in the Nixon tapes), concluded that three shots preceded the 13-second volley; that all were fired by M-1 rifles carried by the Guardsmen; and that there was such a short period of time between the first three shots and the sustained 13-second volley that a shot from one individual could not have triggered the others.
Still, there were unanswered questions. Norman subsequently admitted to positioning himself between the Guardsmen and the protestors and throwing rocks at the students. He claimed to have thrown two or three rocks, but Masterson put the number at closer to "half a dozen, a dozen". Captain John Martin said that he had also noticed Norman throwing rocks and had asked himself, "What is this idiot doing?". It is unclear whether Norman acted at the behest of the agencies he reported to—the university police and the FBI—or whether he acted on his own.
It is also unclear why the FBI initially lied to the public when it claimed to have no relationship with Norman, and why the Bureau announced that his gun had never been fired. An FBI lab report surfaced indicated that Norman's pistol had been fired since its last cleaning. However, the lab was unable to ascertain when or where the gun had most recently been discharged.
Life since the shootings
In a 2004 Tampa Tribune article by former Cleveland Plain Dealer writer Janis Froelich examined Norman's life since the shooting. According to the article, Norman has lived in three states and has held as many different jobs. Froelich located Norman in 2006 living in North Carolina and working as a car salesman.
In 2006 James Renner, current editor of the Cleveland Independent newspaper, described Norman in the Free Times as a possible agent provocateur. Renner stated, "I think he was hired by the FBI to incite instability within SDS."
In 2010, forty years after the events of May 4, forensic expert Stuart Allen, using advanced technology, studied an audiotape of the shootings and concluded that the guardsman were indeed given orders to prepare to fire. Allen continued to study the tape and came up with another surprising finding: that someone had indeed fired four shots some 70 seconds prior to the National Guardsmen opening fire. The evidence appears to implicate Norman as the shooter. The state of Ohio and the U.S. Justice Department refused to review the new evidence, leaving the story of the Kent State shootings unfinished.
- Taylor Rogers and Emily Inverso, KentWired.com, 15 November 2010, http://kentwired.com/may-4-update/ retrieved May 7, 2011
- "Kent State tape indicates altercation and pistol fire preceded National Guard shootings (audio)". The Cleveland Plain Dealer. October 9, 2010.
- Froelich, Janet; "Kent State: A New Look." Tampa Tribune Online, April 30, 2006
- Gordon, William A.; Four Dead in Ohio: Was There a Conspiracy at Kent State? Laguna Hills, California: North Ridge Books, 1975.
- Renner, James, "The Kent State Conspiracies." Free Times, May 3, 2006