Panthers on Trial: The Case of Connecticut Versus the New Haven 9

I. Anecdotes of the Courtroom

If you had wanted to watch the trial of Black Panther Lonnie McLucas in New Haven last month, you would have had to line up at least two hours in advance. There were two main courtrooms originally available, the larger holding at least 75 spectators and the smaller only 30. It was the smaller which was specially prepared with bullet-proof windows and air-conditioning for the trials of Lonnie McLucas and seven other Panthers still facing charges as conspirators in the murder of Alex Rackley. As a result, large numbers of spectators were regularly turned away.

The New Haven Courthouse looks just like a courthouse. It's an imposing pillared building with tall stone steps and broad double wooden doors facing the New Haven Green. Within is a large open area with a high gilded ceiling, on three sides of which are doors leading to the various court-rooms, offices, etc. On one side of this area a narrow space was roped off, for spectators waiting to get into the trial.

Before I received press credentials I attended the trial as a spectator and I grew used to the routine of waiting, lining up at noon to get into the 2 o'clock session of the court. I grew used to the way the courthouse guards made waiting more difficult by prohibiting various activities seemingly at whim. Most days eating in line was not allowed, but drinking was. Stepping over the roped area was not allowed. Sitting within that area was allowed; sitting outside it was not. If you left your place in line for any reason, to go to the bathroom, to eat, the guards told you that you couldn't return to it; though, of course, other people waiting always let you return. Black people, Panthers, friends of the defendant, were always allowed to go to the front of the line. This was frowned on by the guards. Anyone entering the courtroom was searched, of course.

The morning I received my press pass from the New Haven Police Department I arrived at court a few minutes after the morning session had been supposed to start. The guard who had been most offensive to the spectators let me in through the press door with a smile. At first I was amazed that he'd been courteous and hadn't given me any trouble. Then I felt as if someone had been forcing me to play Monopoly all week using his rules and my money, and I was supposed to be relieved that he'd finally agreed to give me $200 back for passing go.

That's how I feel about the verdict in this trial. Lonnie McLucas was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, which carries a maximum sentence of fifteen years, and declared not guilty of the three other more serious charges for which he was tried. But a possible fifteen years in jail is also serious; and a compromise verdict doesn't change the fact that Lonnie McLucas was being forced to play a life-or-death game by someone else's rules.

The last day of the trial, when the defense and the prosecution offered their summaries of the case to the jury, a rally was held on the Green facing the courthouse. Huey P. Newton, Minister of Defense of the Panther Party, recently released from prison in California, had called for the rally only three days before.

Despite the sparse publicity, by afternoon there were about 500 people moving around the Green: Panthers, black people from the New Haven community, radicals who had arrived in New Haven for the massive May 1 demonstration and remained to organize around the trial, people who had driven to New Haven from hours away to show support for Lonnie McLucas.

During the court break for lunch I joined my friends on the Green. I think that the people on the Green, listening to speeches that were impassioned and mostly true but after all only more speeches, knew that what was happening in the courtroom was closely related to their lives. Not only that Lonnie McLucas is young, black, and radical and that we share some of his experiences, many of his beliefs. We recognized that the court was the meeting ground of forces that defined our lives.

After a quick lunch I returned to the press section for the afternoon session of the court. The spectators came in one by one with a pause of a minute between as each was searched. Instead of the usual group, about a third of whom came to the trial regularly, most of these people were young black men and women who'd come from the rally. Usually the spectators, warned by stories of others who'd been forced to leave or been sentenced for contempt for not behaving properly, were quiet and restrained. But these people carried with them the excitement from outside. While we waited for court to begin they moved around in their chairs, gestured, spoke to each other. A girl sitting in the front row said loudly, "How come the white people all come in that door and sit over there?" pointing at the press section. "We're reporters," I told her. She laughed. I looked around me. There were some black reporters at the trial; none of them happened to be in the room at that time.

If I told you that this trial seemed to be "a fair trial," that statement would be both correct and inaccurate. This was no Chicago. The judge, Harold Mulvey, was no Julius Hoffman. I don't know enough about law to comment on his decisions or charge to the jury; his manner appeared impartial. And a murder had been committed in New Haven; a living human being, Alex Rackley, had been shot to death.

But the more vital, more active reality of the events in the New Haven courtroom was a conflict of social forces, of systems of thought. To see this trial as a "common, ordinary case of murder" - as State's Attorney Markle repeated it was, as another reporter insisted to me it was-was not to be objective, but to accept the facade it had been given. This trial was important, to the State of Connecticut, to the black community, and to white radicals precisely because Lonnie McLucas is a member of the Black Panther Party.

Black people are probably one of the groups in the United States who experience oppression most severely, who have the least opportunity to control their own lives. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense was founded in Oakland, California in 1967, by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, to resist that oppression. The first actions the Panthers took were patrolling policemen in the black community, making sure that black men and women were not beaten and arrested without cause. Panther Party members carried guns, as was their legal right, because they saw that the power of the police in the black community came from their guns, not from a useful service they fulfilled in the community or from any respect or authority granted them by the members of the community.

But the Panthers also recognize that achieving their freedom depends upon a radical transformation of society. The programs they developed-free breakfasts for children, liberation schools, free medical clinics, free buses carrying families of prisoners to jails to visit-are directed towards serving their community and developing a revolutionary consciousness based on a Marxist analysis of this society.

I'm not a theorist. I can't judge whether the Panthers, in arming themselves, may have been precipitate, bringing down on themselves more repression than they could possibly resist at this time, repression that, if it doesn't kill them, may force them, to make their organization more and more severe and authoritarian. Perhaps that decision can't be made yet. What I do know is that I feel I'm in the same struggle the Panthers are in-though with much less risk to myself. I want most of the things they want. That's why the trial in New Haven, and what happened to Black Panther Lonnie McLucas, was directly important to me. I wanted to know why Alex Rackley was killed, how and by whom, and what responsibility the Panther Party took. I wanted to understand how the court would treat a black revolutionary.

II. The Facts of the Case

The details of Alex Rackley's murder are complicated and confusing, made more confusing by the lack of any forum in which the factual and emotional truth of the events that occurred could be expressed. I learned as much as I could about the murder directly from the testimony at Lonnie McLucas' trial-the impulse to try to think as a jury member is overwhelming in the court-but not all of the people involved testified and the testimony of two of those who did (Warren Kimbro and George Sams) was, in my opinion, highly subject to doubt. Lonnie McLucas' trial is only the first of a series of trials of Panthers charged with conspiracy in the murder of Alex Rackley, a series of trials which seems intended to culminate in an attempt to convict Bobby Seale. The State of Connecticut's apparent desire to convict Bobby Seale influenced the handling of the Prosecution's case at Lonnie McLucas' trial.

Alex Rackley, a Panther from New York, arrived at the office of the New Haven Panther Party (the apartment of Panther Warren Kimbro) late Saturday night or early Sunday morning May 16, 1969. On Sunday morning George Sams, who had also just arrived in New Haven and who represented himself as a Panther from the national headquarters of the Party, accused Alex Rackley of being an in former. Sams beat Rackley and ordered Warren Kimbro to beat him. Lonnie McLucas, who had never seen either Sams or Rackley before, entered the apartment while this was happening. Then, under Sams' orders, Rackley was brought to the basement of the apartment and tied to a chair by McLucas. Sams ordered Lonnie to boil water. He then ordered that a tape recording be made while he beat Rackley and poured boiling water over him, ostensibly in an attempt to extract information from him. After approximately an hour Rackley, badly burned, was brought upstairs where he remained tied and intermittently under guard, according to Sams' orders, until early Wednesday morning, May 19, 1969.

At that time Sams ordered Warren Kimbro and Lonnie McLucas to borrow a different car and told them they were going to take Alex Rackley to a bus station and let him go. The car was borrowed. Alex Rackley, still bound at the hands and neck, was led to the car by Sams and Kimbro. Sams had a 45, Kimbro (according to McLucas) a rifle. Lonnie McLucas was driving. On the highway, Sams ordered McLucas to turn off into the woods, saying he had decided to release Rackley there. He ordered the car stopped at the end of a dirt road. The four men walked a short distance into the woods. Sams then handed the gun to Kimbro and said, "Ice him, it's orders from national." Kimbro shot Rackley through the head. He spun around and fell to the ground, apparently dead. Sams, Kimbro, and McLucas began to return to the car. Sams gave the 45 to McLucas and told him to go back and make sure Rackley was dead. Believing there was a rifle in the car which Sams and possibly Kimbro might have used on him had he refused, Lonnie McLucas walked back into the woods and fired a shot into Rackley's body. In all medical probability, Rackley was already dead when the second shot was fired.

The above is a recital of events reduced to the minimum. What it omits is coherence, possible motives, explanations of why people acted as they did or what they believed, at any time during the three days of Rackley's detention in the apartment, was going to happen.

The 14 Panthers who were indicted for conspiracy to commit murder included all the people who had been in the Kimbro apartment at any time during the three-day period. Of these 14, two were juveniles and will not stand trial. Three, Loretta Luckes, Warren Kimbro, and George Sams, plea-bargained and also will not stand trial. This leaves the present New Haven 9.

"Plea bargaining" is probably a foreign term. This is how it works Loretta Luckes, Warren Kimbro, and George Sams agreed to plead guilty to the charges against them and to testify for the State. In return they received the State's assurance that their parole will not be opposed. Even with life sentences, they could possibly be released in eight years.

In the cases of most poor (and there fore of most black defendants) plea-bargaining is a useful tool of the courts. The efficiency of the judicial system depends on a high percentage of defendants pleading guilty and by passing jury trials. A man with an over-worked, court-appointed lawyer who is not deeply involved in his case is likely to take the certainty of the lesser sentence involved in pleading guilty rather than risking a jury trial and a possible longer sentence, regardless of his guilt or innocence. In the New Haven case, plea-bargaining had an extra dimension. Bobby Seale was present in New Haven for only one day, May 18, 1969, to make a speech at Yale. The only possible way he could be implicated in Alex Rackley's death is by the testimony of some other Panther directly involved who would say that Seale ordered Rackley's questioning, detention and murder.

Moreover, it is common practice in the State of Connecticut for defendants charged with conspiracy to be tried together, and all the defendants in this case requested to be tried together. In this instance, however, the state separated their cases and decided Lonnie McLucas would be tried first. Why? Several extra-legal explanations are suggested. First, if any defendant testified in behalf of another at a separate trial this testimony, possibly self-incriminatory, could be introduced as evidence in his own trial. (All the other defendants, except Bobby Seale and Peggy Hudgins, who is in love with Lonnie McLucas, declined to testify at McLucas' trial.) Second, and more important, a conviction of one alleged conspirator makes conviction more likely for the others. Find Lonnie McLucas guilty, and there's a better chance of finding Bobby Seale guilty.

The New Haven radical community says that all the Panthers, who have endured a great deal of harassment while in jail for over a year, wereoffered the same deal Loretta Luckes, Warren Kimbro, and George Sams took.

Loretta Luckes is a young woman who had been a Panther for only a short time when Alex Rackley was murdered. Her unfamiliarity with the Panthers and the New Haven community probably influenced her action. Nevertheless, her testimony contained nothing particularly damaging to Lonnie McLucas, and no information about involvement on Bobby Seale's part. Warren Kimbro and George Sams had the most to lose by standing trial, since Sams had ordered the murder and Kimbro had fired the fatal shot.

Lonnie McLucas testified that until the moment Rackley was actually shot. he neither knew nor believed Rackley was going to be killed. Only Kimbro and Sams offered any evidence that directly contradicted this statement. Both remembered on the stand (though neither had mentioned this in any previous statement) that the night of the murder Lonnie McLucas had telephoned to Hartford to ask for more guns, indicated he knew Rackley was going to be killed. (Lonnie McLucas denies making this telephone call.) Only George Sams offered any evidence directly implicating Bobby Seale: he said Seale ordered him to kill Rackley. (Warren Kimbro, whom Sams testified was present at this conversation, said that he was asleep at the time.)

Sams' credibility therefore becomes an extremely important issue. In and out of state mental institutions for four years, he was tested as having an IO of 65. (In prison, this year, his IO was testified at 85.) Sams served as Stokely Carmichael's bodyguard before he joined the Panther Party. In 1968 he was expelled from the Party for stabbing a fellow-member in the leg, but was reinstated due to Stokely Carmichael's intervention. (Carmichael and the Panthers have since severed any working relationship in disagreement over the question of black nationalism.)

According to Bobby Seale, Sams was on the list of "non-functionary" Party members at the time of the murder. Lonnie McLucas's attorneys, Theodore and Michael Koskoff, wanted to call witnesses who would have testified about Sams' previous behavior, but this information was deemed irrelevant by the court. One witness would have described a similar episode in Sam's past when he bound and threatened to murder a man be accused of being an informer in San Francisco. Two women would have testified that Sams had attempted to rape them.

Sams himself testified that while in the Panther Party he always considered himself "Stokely's man." On the stand, Sams tended to speak very quickly, to mispronounce names (such as Fred "Hamilton" for Fred Hampton), to offer political explanations that were unintelligible. When mentioning Stokely Carmichael, however, he spoke more slowly and in a tone that seemed to indicate great respect.

If we do not believe that Sams was acting under orders from Bobby Seale or other Panther officers whom he has implicated (Landon Williams and Rory Hithe) his own history suggests motivation for his actions: a possible desire to ingratiate himself with Carmichael and harm the Party which once expelled him, and a tendency toward sadism. His testimony at Lonnie McLucas' trial would then be explained by his desire to exonerate him self and to tell the story most satisfactory to the Prosecution. (Whether Sams was also working as an agent provocateur, which would explain the tape recording, will probably remain unresolved.)

Lonnie McLucas was not in New Haven at the time the other New Haven Panthers were arrested. He returned, learned of the arrests, stayed for a short while to try and help gather bail money, and then began driving to Panther national headquarters in Berkeley, California. He said he was planning to make a report and then turn himself in. It seems probable he was also trying to reach national head-quarters in a desperate search for clarification as to George Sams' status in the Party and his reasons for ordering Rackley's murder.

He was picked up by the FBI in Salt Lake City, where he made a statement to an FBI agent. After extensive questioning he later made a second statement, in the form of answers to questions, to the New Haven policeman who returned with him from Salt Lake City. In his testimony at the trial McLucas agreed that these statements were correct except for a few details. He admitted tying Rackley in the basement, boiling the water, and firing the shot into Rackley's dead body. But he stressed the fact that the statements omitted one thing which the officials "didn't seem interested in" -that George Sams, during that three-day period in May, constantly carriedand waved threateningly his .45.

The Prosecution stressed the fact that during the three days after the torture session and before Alex Rackley was murdered, Lonnie McLucas had numerous opportunities to "do something" about Alex Rackley's situation. State's Attorney Markle considered McLucas' failure to do something, along with the three actions which he admitted performing, proof of his complicity in a plot to murder Rackley; tree likelihood of his explanation depends on the context in which one sees the Black Panther Party, Lonnie McLucas and George Sams.

Alex Rackley was supposedly murdered for being a police informer. There is no other evidence of Black Panthers ever harming a supposed informer. It is recorded Panther policy that when an informer is discovered he is expelled from the Party and his picture is published in the Party newspaper. Lonnie McLucas knew this. He testified that the morning of the torture session, when he boiled water at Sams' order, he hoped that Sams intended the boiling water as an empty threat and was shocked to see it actually used. My surmise is that during the following three days, while busy with other tasks such as organizing the security for Bobby Seale's speech and helping in the search for a lost child, Lonnie McLucas kept hoping that Panther policy would be followed.

He believed Sams was a national officer of the Party; he knew Sams had a gun and was capable of dealing brutally with those who disagreed with him. Until the moment Rackley was shot, or shortly before that moment, I am sure Lonnie McLucas continued to believe, and to want to believe, that Rackley would be released. I would guess that Warren Kimbro acted under the same suppositions.

There were not many alternatives open to Lonnie McLucas that I can imagine. He could not have called the police; police tend to enter Panther offices shooting. He could not have left New Haven himself without abandoning his political life and the woman he loved. He could not have acquired a gun and challenged Sams without endangering himself and whoever else was present. He could perhaps have challenged Sams anyway, or contacted national headquarters and reported Sam's actions, asking for help and advice. That he did not do so, that he thought of no other alternative for action, probably shows a failure on his part. I do not believe that he is responsible to the State of Connecticut for this failure. No more than a draftee who can think of no other alternative except joining the United States Army and fighting in Vietnam is responsible to the United States government for that possible failure of imagination, judgment, or resources.

III. Conclusions?

As I write (almost a year and a half after the murder) there are seven Panthers still in jail awaiting trial, with scanty evidence against them.

Landon Williams and Rory Hithe are in Colorado fighting extradition. According to Sams' version of the story. they also ordered him to arrange Rackley's murder. Until the issue of extradition is resolved we will not learn their version of the truth.

Three Panther women. Rose Smith, Peggy Hudgins and Ericka Huggins, are in jail in Connecticut. There seems to be no evidence against Rose Smith and Peggy Hudgins (who suffers severely from arthritis and who still has not been allowed to see a doctor of her own choice) except their occasional presence in the Kimbro apartment and their knowledge that Rackley had been maltreated. These facts obviously do not necessarily mean complicity in a plot to murder Rackley. Ericka Hudgins' voice is on the tape recording Sams ordered made of the torture session; this does not seem to be proof of complicity, either.

George Edwards is the other New Haven Panther still jailed. The extent of Edwards' participation, according to all testimony so far, is one visit to the Kimbro apartment at the conclusion of the torture session. George Edward's wife attended court almost every day. A large, placid woman, she waited in line with other spectators and matter-of-factly told stories about her 7-month-old baby, born while her husband was in jail, whomhe has been able to see only a few times. She mentioned that she had been told the state has to find something against Edwards after holding him for over a year; otherwise he could sue for illegal detention.

Another Panther woman, Frances Carter, is presently free. After serving several months in jail, Frances Carter was ordered freed on bail by a Federal court which declared there was not enough evidence against her to justify her detention. When she refused to testify, she was again jailed, for contempt of court. After having served a total time of five and a half months, she was granted a satisfactory immunity, agreed to testify, and was freed.

And Bobby Seale, of course, is still in jail awaiting trial.

Where do we go from here?

The official statement of the Panther Party concerning Alex Rackley's murder, released at a press conference held by Huey P. Newton in New Haven, says that the members of the New haven chapter who allowed this incident to occur were young and immature, and that the Party must stand criticized for allowing a man like George Sams to ever become a member. I agree.

The Black Panther Party is an organization which exists in opposition to the government of the United States. It exists because the government of the United States offers not justice but systematic oppression to the community the Panther Party attempts to serve. It is an incidental but illuminating fact that the routine of jury selection in New Haven County tends to automatically disallow the poor (those who would receive no pay while serving as jury members) and the young (students are considered unacceptable).

The Panther Party must be strongly criticized for its failures that allowed the murder of Alex Rackley to occur. The State of Connecticut must be strongly criticized for its administration of legal matters following the murder, for organizing trials and testimony not in an attempt to serve justice but to damage the Panther Party as severely as possible. And the government of the United States must be opposed for creating and maintaining a situation in which resistance such as the Panthers practice is one of the only ways the Panthers could survive with some degree of control over their own lives.

But I'm not outraged or surprised anymore-and I suspect neither are you-to discover further evidence of the need for opposition to that government. I am more outraged and surprised that Panthers killed a man and made themselves and their Party even more vulnerable to the state with no good reason. I may feel that outrage because in so far as the Panther Party is the vanguard of our revolution the pressures they face are pressures we will eventually face: an opposition force with infinitely greater material resources, that can tap our phones, break down our doors, suborn our comrades, and shoot us down with the law on its side; the constant threat of pain and death. And mistakes the Panthers make, under that pressure, are mistakes we may make someday.