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Kilgore: Ashamed but should be allowed to teach

Published: Wednesday, May 14, 2014 11:54 p.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD – University of Illinois instructor James Kilgore said Wednesday that he isn’t proud of his actions as a convicted felon and member of a 1970s radical group but believes he shouldn’t be barred from teaching.

Kilgore, who is 66, went to work at the university after his release from a California prison for a second-degree murder conviction but says he was told this spring that he’ll lose his job teaching global studies and other courses after this semester. A university committee is now reviewing Kilgore’s situation.

Kilgore told University of Illinois trustees who were meeting Wednesday in Springfield that he has spent more than three decades trying to move beyond his membership in the Symbionese Liberation Army.

“As a young man I committed acts of which I stand ashamed, acts which were illegal (and) destructive,” Kilgore, who wore a dark suit jacket and dark dress shirt, said during the public comments period of the meeting.

“Who better to tell someone how to avoid a destructive path than someone who has walked that path?” he added later.

Kilgore and his supporters have said a decision not to hire him based on his criminal past is a potential threat to academic freedom.

One of those supporters, Urbana-Champaign campus landscape architect professor Fairchild Ruggles, compared Kilgore to the once-imprisoned South African leader Nelson Mandela and said denying Kilgore a teaching position would be a blow to academic freedom.

Trustee Patrick Fitzgerald, a former U.S. attorney, disputed that.

“It is not, to me, an academic freedom issue,” Fitzgerald said. “Those decisions are based on whether conduct, and not speech in the past, is something we can look at and make an appropriate hiring decision.”

Trustees Chairman Christopher Kennedy has said he doesn’t believe the university should employ Kilgore because of his violent criminal past. Kennedy’s father, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated in 1968.

On Wednesday Christopher Kennedy said Kilgore’s situation is in the hands of the committee and campus administrators in Urbana-Champaign, but thanked Fitzgerald for his comment.

“I think it’s important to continue to defend where we’re coming from,” Kennedy said.

Kilgore was released from state prison in California in 2009 after serving six years for a second-degree murder conviction for his role in a 1975 bank robbery in which housewife Myrna Opsahl was shot to death. He served an earlier term for using a dead infant’s birth certificate to obtain a passport and for possession of a pipe bomb.

Kilgore was arrested after spending 27 years at large, including many living under a false name in South Africa, where he was a student and later an academic.

He went to work in 2011 at the University of Illinois, where his wife, Teresa Barnes, is an assistant professor.

The SLA was best known for kidnapping newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst in 1974.

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