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.