The record of New Haven’s political trial of the century — which echoes in today’s national “Black Lives Matter” debates over race and criminal justice — disappeared from public view. Forty-four years later, it has returned, for good.
The case in question was the murder trial of Black Panther Party leaders Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins. It took place at a fortified state courthouse on Elm Street across from the New Haven Green — last century, not this century.
For two months in 1971, a nation watched to see whether black revolutionaries could get a fair trial. Yale President Kingman Brewster famously declared his doubts. Judge Harold Mulvey determined to prove Brewster wrong. Meanwhile, half of the defense team (Huggins’ half) got a lesson in feminist legal practice, then taught one of its own.
Months of drama later, the jury deadlocked. Judge Mulvey declared a mistrial. The state never tried the case again. Seale and Huggins went free — and the state discarded the fascinating 3,818-page trial transcript.
This week, on the heels of the 45th anniversary of the New Haven May Day protest on behalf of Seale and Huggins, the transcript has resurfaced, in digitized form, available to the public. The transcript is now available here on the website of Yale Law School Library Documents Collection Center. (More later in this article on how that came to be.)
The state sought the death penalty for Seale, national chairman of the Panther Party, and Ericka Huggins, a temporarily New Haven-based party leader, in connection with the torture-murder of a falsely suspected informer named Alex Rackley. The state acknowledged that neither person could have killed Rackley; both the gunman, Warren Kimbro, and the party leader who ordered the hit, George Sams, pleaded guilty to their crimes. At a time when the FBI had pretty much declared war on the Panthers, the state sought to tie Seale and Huggins to the crime. The problem was that no real evidence existed to tie the crime to Seale, and precious little evidence to tie it to Huggins (certainly not for a capital crime).
The trial became a flashpoint for the sometimes-violent political divisions in post-Civil Rights Era America: Radicals were convinced the trial was a plot to silence dissent. Conservatives were convinced that the criminal justice system needed to come down hard on radicals like the Panthers.
Yale President Brewster, speaking at a time when some university leaders felt comfortable taking public stands on political controversies, upped the stakes with this proclamation: “I personally want to say that I am appalled and ashamed that things should have come to such a pass in this country that I am skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States. In large part this atmosphere has been created by police actions and prosecutions against the Panthers in many parts of the country. It is also one more inheritance from centuries of racial discrimination and oppression.”
Even in a pre-Internet age, Brewster’s remarks went viral, earning rebukes from the Nixon White House down to the statehouse to conservative columnist William F. Buckley Jr.
A conservative judge, Mulvey (pictured), set out to prove Brewster wrong. Panther supporters sought to have Mulvey removed from the case because of racist comments in his past. Mulvey insisted on hearing the case, insisted on trying it in New Haven despite a flood of publicity that necessitated the longest-ever jury selection process in Connecticut history: Attorneys grilled 1,034 potential jurors over 17 weeks before settling on a jury.
A hard-charging liberal state prosecutor, Arnold Markle (pictured), also determined to fight the case to the end, was convinced that Panthers were misleading the black community in the quest for social justice.
On May 25, 1971, some two years after pre-trial proceedings began, Mulvey—who had visibly grown sympathetic to Seale and Huggins during the trial (commenting on their “remarkable change”) , and exasperated with his friend Markle—gave up pressing the deadlocked jurors—who had been screaming at each other in the jury room—to keep seeking a verdict. He declared the mistrial. He also declared that the case should not be retried.
In doing so, he seemed to state that Kingman Brewster had been right after all: “I find it impossible to believe that an unbiased jury could be selected without superhuman efforts, efforts which this court, the state and these defendants should not be called upon either to make or to endure.”
The irony, from history’s viewpoint, is that Mulvey had proved Brewster wrong after all: Black revolutionaries did receive a fair trial.
Could a woman?
That question appeared subtly, and out in the open, during the trial. Seale and Huggins had separate lawyers. During the trial, Huggins’ attorney, Catherine Roraback, gradually concluded (she later told this reporter before her death) that Seale’s attorney, Charles Garry, was working against her client’s interest. Meanwhile, she and Huggins devised a strategy to prove a key defense claim—that Huggins couldn’t stop the torture and murder of Rackley because male-dominated party leaders wouldn’t listen to her—by laying a trap for the hard-charging prosecutor Markle. Huggins testified in her own defense. They expected Markle to badger her, especially on this point. Markle did. So Huggins responded: “Well, you see, it’s very hard, first of all for a woman to be heard by men.” It worked.
The trial transcript is rife with such dramatic moments, with a cast of characters—and dissection of criminal-justice issues at a crucial time in American history—worthy of a Broadway or televised courtroom drama.
Until now the public had access to only newspaper accounts of that trial found in newspaper archives. In the process of researching a book about the case a decade ago, this reporter tracked down one of the court reporters from the trial, named Walter Rochow. By then retired and living in Hamden, Rochow had kept a copy of the transcript in his basement. He agreed to allow a copy to be made. It proved impossible to put down—one long night of sleep, for instance, was lost to poring through it.
That copy remained in this reporter’s attic until this spring, when Mary Phillips, a City University of New York assistant professor of African and African American Studies, learned about the absence of a copy of the transcript in state archives, then sought more information. (Click here to read a piece she has written about Ericka Huggins and the party’s feminist roots.) A request (granted) for a copy of the trial transcript led to the better-late-than-never realization that the transcript needs to be preserved for public use. A digitized copy proved too large to upload to the Independent website. So the transcript was offered to the folks at Yale Law School’s Avalon project, who proved eager to post a digital copy to their archives. Click here to read it.
This is the second artifact from the trial found and preserved for posterity. The trial transcript includes a transcript of a tape recording the Panthers made of an interrogation of Alex Rackley as he sat tied up in a chair after having had pots of boiling water poured over him. People who attended the trial said they never forgot what that tape sounded like—especially Huggins’ voice as interrogator, in contrast to the flower-child manner she adopted on the stand. Two years ago someone discovered an old copy of that recording in a basement and provided it to the Independent; the Firehouse 12 studio converted the reel-to-reel recording to a digital file. Click here to read more about that; click on the video to hear the recording.
Paul Bass is the co-author with Douglas W. Rae of a book about the case entitled Murder in the Model City: The Black Panthers, Yale and the Redemption of a Killer (Basic Books 2006). Chapters 17-22 describe the trial.