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The Trial of Bobby Seale

By Garrett Epps

SOMETIME in the afternoon of May 21, 1969, a farmer in Middlefield County, Connecticut, found the body of Alex Rackley, a member of the New York chapter of the Black Pan the Party, floating in the murky waters of the Cochinchaug River, about 25 miles from New Haven. Rackley had been shot once in the head and once in the chest with a 24-caliber pistol.

This much is definite. Proven. Beyond doubt.

But no other item of evidence, no other piece of testimony in the police inquiry into the death of Alex Rackley is certain or uncontested. Nothing-beyond the fact that Rackley was alive until May 19 and dead on May 21-has yet been definitely established.

The aftermath of Rackley's death, however, may result in the death by electrocution of Bobby G. Seale, National Chairman of the Black Panther Party, and of five members of the New Haven Chapter of the Panthers.

The next day, acting on information from an informant who has not been identified, the New Haven police raided the headquarters of the New Haven Panther chapter-allegedly without warrants-and arrested eight members: six women, Francis Carter, Maude Francis, Margaret Hudgins, Ericka Huggins, Rose Smith, and Jeanne Smith, and two men, George Edwards and Warren Kimbrow.

Charges were later dropped against Frances Carter, but she was imprisoned again for contempt of court when she refused to testify at Scale's bail hearing earlier this month.

At the same time, the police say, they seized a number of guns and tapes allegedly made by Panthers the night Rackley died. These tapes form one of the prosecution's main sources of evidence in the upcoming trial in New Haven. Some Panthers have charged that they are faked. Others contend that they contain merely a report by Rackley to the members of the New Haven chapter on the situation in New York, where 21 Panthers were being held on charges of conspiring to blow up department stores. The prosecution contends, however, that they are recordings of a "kanga?oo trial" given Rackley by the Panhers, a "trial" in which he was condemned to death.

Police told reporters on the day of the arrests that the New Haven Panthers had kidnapped and murdered Rackley because they suspected him of being a police informer. Police also said that the body showed evidence of having been beaten, tortured and burned with cigarettes.

THE EIGHT were arraigned in the Sixth Circuit Court the next morning. The presiding judge continued their case indefinitely to allow the State Attorney to issue warrants for further arrests.

One week later, on May 28, police arrested Mrs. Loretta Luckes, who was on a weekend visit to New Haven from her home in Bridgeport. Mrs. Luckes-who told police that she had been a Panther for only a few weeks-was pregnant at the time of her arrest. She later had her baby in jail.

The next day, Mrs. Luckes and six of those originally arrested-all but Maude Francis and Jeanne Wilson, who were under 18-were taken from the custody of the Sixth Circuit Court and rearranged on multiple charges ranging from unlawful binding to kidnapping and murder. All seven were imprisoned without bail. The two juveniles were held as material witnesses under $10,000 bond.

Bench warrants were issued at this time by the Superior Court for the arrest of four other Panthers-Landon Williams, Rory Hithe, Lonnie McLucas, and George Sams. Hithe and Williams were arrested in Denver on June 5, McLucas a few weeks later in Salt Lake City. Although McLucas waived extradition and was brought to New Haven immediately, Hithe and Williams are still in Denver fighting attempts to extradite them to New Haven to stand trial.

The nine New Haven Panthers spent the summer in jail awaiting the arrest of Sams.

On July 6, Stokcley Carmichacl announced from exile in Africa that he Taos resigning as Prime Minister of the Black Panther Party because of the group's policy of making alliances with white radical groups. In New York, the proceedings against 21 Panthers allegedly involved in a bomb plot continued. On July 7, George F. McGrath. New York City Commissioner of the New York City Department of Justice justified holding the New York defendants in isolation cells with special security measures by saying that the Panthers were "recognized militants. as part of a formal party which urges people to be antiestablishment. We view them as security risks. It's simply a matter of their proclivity for trouble."

The same day, Eldridge Cleaver, from his exile in Algiers. denounced Carmichael's contontion that black revolutionaries should seek to ally only with non-white, third world people. "Suffering is color-blind," Cleaver said.

Two weeks later, the Oakland Conference, called by the Black Panther Party, created a multiracial United Front against Fascism. Bobby Seale spoke at a rally on July 19 which opened the conference, and Charles Garry-the lawyer who has defended so many Panthers that the Party calls him "the only true White Panther" -conducted seminars for lawyers on problems involved in courtroom defense of Panthers and other radical groups.

In the middle of August, George Sams was arrested in Toronto. At this point the case takes on a much more serious turn. Sams has so far proved to be the most important-and problematic-prosecution witness. Immediately after his arrest, he signed an affidavit implicating Bobby Seale in the death of Alex Rackley. On August 19, in Oakland, Bobby Seale was arrested on charges of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.

Seale, already under indictment for conspiracy to riot and crossing state lines with intent to incite a rot, fought extradition to Connecticut, which is sued an indictment against him on August 19. A California court ordered him extradited, and Governor Ronald Reagan, not surprisingly, turned down his appeal.

BOBBY SEALE and George Sams are the two most important figures in the New Haven case: Sams because his testimony may send Seale to the electric chair, and Seale because his indictment turned the New Haven trial from an almost routine prosecution of a small Party Chapter-one of many such prosecutions in the nationwide crackdown on the Panthers which has been underway since Richard Nixon and Co. took over the operation of the nation's law-enforcement apparatus-into what may be one of the most important political trials in this century, a trial which black and white radicals alike contend forms an all-important, make-or-break cross-roads for the Movement, a trial which John Froines called "the focus of the whole country."

The two-Seale and Sams-are disparate figures.

Bobby Seale and Huey Newton-Minister of Defense now in prison for manslaughter-founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense as students at Merritt College in Oakland. Since then Seale has been arrested four times-all four arrests on charges relating to his Black Panther activities: on June 8, 1967, on charges of carrying a gun in a state building during a Panther demonstration at the California Statehouse in Sacramento against a proposed gun-control law being debated in the Legislature (he was later given three years probation); on Feb. 25, 1967, for conspiracy to commit murder (charges were later dropped); once, in 1968. on conspiracy charges connected with the 1968 Chicago demonstrations (the case was declared a mistrial but Scale was given four years for contempt of court): and finally, on August 19, for murder, kidnapping, unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.

Panther members know Seale as an excellent speaker and organizer, whose efforts all over the West Coast played a large part in gathering public support for the "Free Hucy" demonstrations which, many observers feel, were responsible for the verdict of manslaughter which a predominantly white jury gave in the 1968 trial of Hucy Newton (the prosecution had asked for a conviction for first-degree murder, which would have meant the gas chamber).

Since 1968, Seale has crisscrossed the country speaking to groups of Panthers and white radicals, and helping to organize new chapters of the Party. On May 19, 1969, his travels brought him to Yale for a speaking engagement. This is where the late Alex Rackley, George Sams, and the electric chair entered his life.

George Sams-known for much of his life as "Crazy George" -spent three years between 1961 and 1964 in various mental institutions in New York, where he was listed as an "alleged dangerous mental defective.." In 1964, he was released after finally achieving a score of 75 on a standard IQ test-five points over the cutoff point for such a case.

After his release, Sams drifted for a few years, then joined the Black Panther Party, serving for a while as bodyguard to Stokely Carmichael. The New York Times, March 22, 1970, contains this description of Sams:

"In Detroit, Sams had several running with police, including one in 1966 when he was hospitalized after being shot in the head while breaking into a grocery store.

"Acquaintances in Detroit remember Sams as a braggart and a brawler. . . . They say he packed a revolver underneath a used choir robe that he said was a dashiki. At a rally in West Side Church, the audience giggled throughout a speech by [Stokely] Carmichael because Sams, recruited on stage as a bodyguard, tasted the water from a pitcher to test it for poison and drank it all."

He was expelled once from the Party for stabbing a fellow Panther. but Stokely Carmichael used his influence to get him readmitted. Carmichael says that he learned that Sams was a police agent early in May 1969, but was unable to communicate this information from Africa to the Panther leadership.

So far, George Sams seems to be the prosecution's only link to Bobby Scale. Last Wednesday, at a bail hearing for Seale, Sams testified that Seale had entered a room where other defendants were holding Rackley and asked "Is that a pig?" When the other Panthers replied that it was a pig, Sams said, Seale then replied, "what do you do with a pig? Off the [deleted]." He testified that he, Lonnie McLucas and Warren Kimbro, had driven Rackley to a place near the river. Then, Sams said, "Kimbro shot him first. Lonnie hit him second."

After his testimony was complete, presiding judge Harold M. Mulvey ordered that Sams be given a full psychiatric examination.

Warren Kimbro and Loretta Luckes have pleaded guilty to charges of second degree murder and are expected to testify for the prosecution. When first arrested in May, Kimbro pleaded not guilty. Police kept him apart from the other prisoners, and in January the State Attorney's office paid traveling expenses so that his brother, a police sergeant in Dade County, Fla., could come and talk to him. Shortly after his brother's visit, Kimbro changed his plea to guilty. His lawyer subsequently withdrew from the case after filing a motion which claimed Kimbro's constitutional rights had been violated because the interview with his brother had taken place with on this lawyer's permission or knowledge.

Bail hearings for Seale began early this month and are still going on. It seems likely that the tapes allegedly found in the Panther headquarters in the May 22 raid, and the testimony of Sams and Kimbro will be the main items in the prosecution's case. It is not known exactly what Kimbro will testify. Voices on the tape-which were identified as being those of some of the defendants by Loretta Luckes-do not include Bobby Seale's.

THE DEFENSE strategy is not yet clear, but the Panthers have stated repeatedly during the investigation that Alex Rackley was a member of the Party in good standing and that he was killed by police agents. Charles Garry told reporters, "We have every reason to believe and we intend to prove that Rackley was murdered by police agents." In an interview published in The Black Panther, the Party's official newspaper, published March 21, Scale said, "George Sams killed Alex Rackley . . . George Samsdefinitely actually in fact was the one who did kill Brother Alex Rackley, and Brother Alex Rackley was no agent. . . . We've got documented evidence-we can document George Sams' activities and exactly what he did and how he put this stuff together."

Defense strategy also seems to call for a cool approach to courtroom proceedings. Although Seale-already facing four years for alleged disruptions in the Chicago trial-said in the interview. I got a reputation for dealing with judges who violate my constitutional rights." he has not disturbed the court so far.

On April 14. Party Chief of Staff David Hilbard and Minister of Culture Emory Douglas were handed a summary sentence of six months for contempt of court after a scuffle with marshals who had grabbed from them a note written by Seale. A week later the judge commuted the sentences to "time served" and ordered the two released after they-and Seale-made public apologies to the court for the outburst. At that time. Sale pledged to "maintain decorum" in the courtroom. "I pledge allegiance to the United States of America. I pledge allegiance to liberty and justice." he said. "I want a fair trial and I respect your honor very much."

The opening of Seale's trial may be delaved for many months because Garry intends to challenge the selection procedures for the Grand Jury which indicted Seale. Of the 20 jurors on the panel. six had served on Grand Juries before-some as many as 14 times. Many are old personal friends of the Sheriff-the barber who cuts his hair and the owner of the barbershop. the son of a family friend, a former jail guard who had worked under the sheriff. One is a lawyer who happened to be in the courthouse and was impaneled at the last minute so that there would be a full jury. Many of those who are not the sheriff's friends .Garry says. And of the 20 members, 13 are between 50 and 70 years old.

If he gets the fair trial he wants, many of the confusions surrounding the events of May 19, 1969 and following may disappear. If he does not. many new ones may appear. At any rate, something will be settled in the Superior Court in New Haven in the coming months.

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