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Books Tales of Hoffman

By James M. Fallows

286 pages, $1.50

WHILE the Chicago conspiracy trial has casily taken its place on the list of Decisive Political Events of the last few years, it has suffered one major flaw as a political rallying point. In the age of televised history-when millions of clectronic witnesses have personally seen conventions, assassinations, riots, and marches-the trial remained a basically private affair. The TV cameras that made it to the moon could not enter Judge Julius Hoffman's District Court. And so the public was left to feed on the daily press reports, all of which seemed to begin. In its most tumuhuons day yet the Chicago trial..."

Tales of Hoffman an instant-history documentary of the trial, is an attempt to bring some of the eyewitness ilavor back into the conspiracy proccedings. The book's editors, three young lawyers from New York have boiled some 20,000 pages of trial testimony into a neat 286-page package of readable excerpts.

As might be expected for so ruthless a condensation, the final product doesn't contain everything it might. The book's subtitle-"A documentary of courtroom confrontation"-gives a good idea of what's maide Faced with the choice of writing a legal gloss on the trial or piccing together a Whitman's Sampler of courtroom witticisms, the editors have steered loward the sampler. Their purpose, achieved with spectacular success, is to show off the escalating battle between Judge Hoffman and the Conspiracy.

This approach has its drawbacks. Far too often through the transcript, the editors leave out basic legal arguments in order to serve up a full smorg-asbord of snippets of nasty conversation. Anyone who picks up this book hoping for clarification of the trial's legal mysteries is going to be disappointed. Until the "Final Summations" section, for example, it is almost impossible to figure out just what case the government is trying to make against the defendants.

Despite these annoying moments, however, the book's approach may actually reveal a more profound understanding of what was at stake in the trial. If readers had not already surmised as much from press reports, this book makes it perfectly clear that the Conspiracy trial was not a simple criminal prosecution. As Dwight MacDonald points out in his superb introduction to Tales, the trial was a kulturkampf -a cultural war between the straightlaced propriety of Julius Hoffman and the uninhibited uproar of Abbie.

In providing evidence on this aspect of the trial, the book is a gold mine. Judge Hoffman's bias has become an accepted national fact; the book, however, still makes startling reading as it shows the many ways Hoffman's prejudice expressed itself through the trial.

Even to readers unskilled in the law, the unfairness of many of Hoffman's rulings is bluntly clear. The Judge permitted the prosecution to grill poet Allan Ginsberg about his homosexual background-but Hoffman ruled that all defense testimony about the Chicago convention was irrelevant. The capping moment in this display of bad judgment comes when Hoffman forbids former Attorney General Ramsey Clark to testify for the defense.

WHILE errors in judicial rulings are an expected part of the legal process, the amount of personal bile that a U. S. District Court judge let flow from his mouth is much more astounding. Hoffman's refusal to learn defense attorney Leonard Weinglass' name-the Judge called him Weinstein, Feinstein, Weineruss, Fineglass, Weinramer, and a host of others-emerges as only one part of a generally snide approach to the defense. In the same vein, Hoffman alluded to William Kunstler's "comic book defense" and embroiled himself in the type of petty harassment one would expect of Abbie Hoffman:

The Court: That is a maxim of the law I never heard of, and I sustain [the prosecution's] objection.

Mr. Kunstler: You have heard the maxim that "False in one thing, false in all." That is what I am referring to...

The Court: You ought to put on your striped pants and be a professor... I didn't ask you for a lecture. I don't know all these fancy phrases you use.

Hoffman's mangling of the Bobby Seale case was another striking abuse during the trial. The editors have done an intelligent job of highlighting the events that led to Seale's jailing on contempt charges in November. The material they present makes two points that have generally been lost in press accounts of the trial: first, that Seale's outbursts were rarely "obscene" and were always aimed at the Judge's refusal to let Seale act as his own lawyer; and second, that Hoffman's opposition to Seale's plea was based on the totally unrealistic premise that letting Seale defend himself "would be disruptive... to the proceedings."

Hoffman also reveals a curious sensitivity to charges that he was a racist. During the long harangue over Seale, the Judge told Kunstler:

I lived for a long time, and you are the first person who has ever suggested that I have discriminated against a black man. Come in to my chambers and I will show you what one of the great newspapers of the city said editorially about me in connection with [a] school desegregation case.

For their part, of course, the defendants veered from standard courtroom procedure as much as the Judge did-although in a more bening direction. The book is a million laughs as it describes the opening sections of the trial, with Abbie Hoffman baring his belly to the jury and the Judge solemnly noting, "let the record show that Defendant Weiner is laughing at me as hard as he can."

By the end of the trial, the disruptions had taken on an entirely different tone. The book's most important function may be in showing the progression from the Yippic outbursts of the first few days to the bitter protests of all the defendants at the end of the trial.

The change that seizes Kunstler is perhaps the most serious indicator. As the trial gets underway. Kunstler uses the tactics he had tested in years of civil rights litigation in the South. He fights stubbornly, but within the bounds of accepted procedure and politeness. Five months later, after he has watched Seale gagged and then carried off, after all his objections have been overruled, after Hoffman has screened out most of the defense witnesses, Kunstler is a new lawyer. He explodes in early February, after the Judge has decided that Ralph Abernathy cannot testify:

I know that this is not a fair trial. I know it in my heart. If I have to lose my license to practice law and if I have to go to jail, I can't think of a better cause...

At the end, as Hoffman is doling out contempt charges and saying that lawyers "who are waiting in the wings" are responsible for the rise in crime. Kunstler finishes with a plea that his fate "not deter other lawyers throughout the country who, in the difficult days that lie ahead, will be asked to defend clients against a steadily increasing governmental encroachment upon their most fundamental liberties..."

Since the trial has ended, legal scholars and the Supreme Court have mulled over the issue of courtroom decorum. It is, in fact, perfectly reasonable to ask whether the U. S. judicial system will be able to survive the calculated histrionics of men like Abbie Hoffman. But the metamorphosis of Kunstler and his clients shows that the Chicago trial was simply not the place where that issue could be decided. By the time the confrontation took shape, the Judge had so stripped away the vestiges of fairness that it is impossible to say whether better trials might work.

If Seale had been able to defend himself, if Clark were allowed to testify, if the defendants had been given a fair chance, maybe the outcome would have been different. Maybe not. Either way, the answer will not come from Julius Hoffman's courtroom.

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