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Catherine Roraback Knew Who Was Watching

posted: Oct 22, 2007 6:45 am | Comments (7)

roraback.jpgCatherine Roraback was suspicious when someone grabbed her pocketbook one night on Temple Street. Everyone in New Haven in those days, it seems, had reason to feel suspicious. Paranoid, even. Especially someone like Roraback. When the police returned her pocketbook days later, Roraback’s suspicions deepened.

I was reminded of that story this past week when I heard the news Roraback, a hero to Connecticut’s civil rights and civil liberties communities, died at the age of 87. (Click here and here to read obituaries in the Courant and The New York Times.)

Roraback is best known for convincing the U.S. Supreme Court that women had a right to privacy, and therefore to information about contraception, in a landmark case called Griswold v. Connecticut. Roraback represented Planned Parenthood in that case. Roraback’s victory laid the groundwork for the Supreme Court’s subsequent Roe v. Wade decision on abortion.

She also represented Connecticut Communists jailed in the 1950s under a particularly pernicious piece of McCarthy-era legislation known as the Smith Act.

In New Haven she’s best known for representing Black Panther Ericka Huggins in the political trial of the century, the 1970-71 murder case against Huggins and fellow party leader Bobby Seale.

I spent a memorable day discussing the case with Roraback for a book I was writing on the episode. In February of 2005, we chatted for hours in the law office Roraback maintained in picturesque town center of Canaan, Connecticut. Yes, she was still practicing law, and passionated about it, well into her 80s.

Roraback was kind of cranky, too. But not that day. She taught me a lot about that case. In the process of telling her stories, she brought alive a transitional time in American feminism, as well as the depth of paranoia — the reasons for all the paranoia — that activists experienced during a period when the government was at war with its dissidents.

A New Feminism

Roraback remembered clearly the day, more than three decades earlier, when she showed up in state court in New Haven to represent Huggins at her arraignment on aiding and abetting murder and kidnapping resulting in death. Roraback was used to breaking barriers. In 1969, she was still the only female criminal defense lawyer practicing in New Haven.

And yet she had never seen her role as a women clearly until she met Ericka Huggins that day.

Roraback saw the sheriffs escort Huggins in. Huggins stopped right behind Roraback’s back.
“Oh my God,” Hggins said.
“What’s the matter?” Roraback asked her, alarmed.
It’s all men..”

Roraback looked at the judge, at the sheriffs, at the other attorneys, at the court stenographers, at the news reporters. Yep, all men.

On a superficial level, Roraback knew that, of course. She had practiced in that courtroom for 20 years. She knew that women rarely if ever took part in daily court combat. But until Ericka Huggins made the observation, she had never really thought about it.

In the course of the trial, Roraback discovered that even the men supposedly on her side were willing to sacrifice women for their own personal hides. Roraback was supposedly working alongside the lawyer for Bobby Seale, Charles Garry. Then she learned that Garry was secretly arranging for a key Panther to witness to come forward because his testimony would exonerate Seale — even though it could hurt Ericka Huggins, even send her to the electric chair. Roraback caught wind of the machinations in time to stop the witness from testifying.

Roraback got Ericka Huggins off with a brilliant gambit that drew on this heightened sense of the role of feminism in this case. She needed to portray Huggins as less of the leader that she actually was in the Black Panther Party. She needed to come up with a way to convince the jury that Huggins had no role in the murder in New Haven of a 19 year-old falsely accused spy in the party named Alex Rackley. She decided to make the case that Ericka Huggins wanted to stop the torture and murder of Rackley, but men wouldn’t listen to her in the party.

It was a hard case to make — until Roraback and Huggins laid a trap for the prosecutor, Arnold Markle. Roraback counted on Markle to browbeat and generally disrespect Huggins on the stand. She and Huggins practiced for weeks for Huggins to deliver a knock-out line: When Markle expressed astonishment at Huggins’ story, and continued talking past her, Huggins would calmly say, “Well, you see, it’s very hard, first of all, for a woman to be heard by men.”

Markle fell into the trap, failing to listen to her, acting the role of overbearing male. Roraback repeated the line at a key point in her summation, addressing the women in the jury. Huggins went free.

Paranoia Strikes Deep

Strange things kept happening during the trial, outside the courtroom. In 2005, Roraback remembered them well, and believed they fit right into the larger canvas of massive government violations that were later revealed to have taken place at the time under the umbrella of an FBI-led assault on radicals known as COINTELPRO.

One of those strange incidents: During prepration for the trial, Roraback heard that a fellow inmate at the Niantic prison convinced Huggins and other Panther women jailed there to join in a jailbreak. Roraback told Huggins: Don’t do it. Huggins agreed, then talked the other Panthers out of it.

The woman who tried to convince them to join her ended up escaping alone, out of a window where the screen had been left open. She was returned to jail.

The captured escapee subsequently contacted Roraback. She asked Roraback to visit her at Niantic right away. Roraback agreed.

At the jail, the woman, unnerved, told Roraback a wild story: The woman had come from Boston to New Haven for a pro-Panther rally. The police arrested her and other Panthers for driving a car rented on a stolen credit card. On her way to jail, she was asked to keep an eye on the Panther women. The FBI said it had a mission for her.

Eventually she was asked to enlist the Panthers in an escape attempt through an open window; a car would await her and return her to jail, no questions asked.

The women ended up escaping alone, perhaps to preserve her cover once Ericka Huggins’s group dropped out. now she feared the government had abandoned her. The woman had a date in court. She thought she wasn’t supposed to go to court. No one was helping her.

Roraback said she couldn’t officially serve as the woman’s lawyer, but she would show up in court the next day to offer informal advice. She did show up at court the next day. There was no sign of the woman or her case. It didn’t appear on any court record.

Roraback had no doubt: the FBI, or other authorities, planned to shoot Ericka Huggins as she tried to escape. She couldn’t prove it. The arrest of the woman who had called her for help was public knowledge. Boston’s Panthers did develop questions about whether the woman was a governmetn agent. Whether or not the escapee’s story was true, it very well could have been; the FBI and local police agencies did engage in deadly set-ups, including the murder of Chicago Panther leader Fred Hampton as he lay asleep in his apartment. Informers and agents provocateur were everywhere.

You could never be sure if a story like the one Roraback heard was true. That was part of the point of efforts like COINTELPRO: The fact that you could never be sure who was a spy and who wasn’t, which wild conspiracy story was true or which wasn’t, basically shut down the ability of dissenting groups from operating effectively.

Roraback was convinced that the woman’s story was true. She’d seen enough suspicious incidents, too suspicious incidents.

Like her own mugging in New Haven.

Neatly Folded

Here’s what happened, as she recalled it years later in our interview:

One night during the Panther trial Roraback met at Yale Law School with students who were helping with the case. One woman had had had her handbag stolen in bathroom. Roraback gave her the rest of the money she had.

Afterwards, Roraback was walking on Temple Street to her Trumbull Street apartment. A man ran by and grabbed her bag. It was a cold night: The bag was on Roraback’s shuolder; her hands were in her coat pockets. So the grab knocked her over.

The man was apologetic as he slit the bag with a knife and took it.

For days Catherine called the cops: No sign of the bag, they said. She finally went down to the police station. A man there said he’d check the detective division.

The bag was there. All her notes and scraps of paper were unfolded and neater than they’d ever been. Someone clearly was reading those notes, she concluded.

And she was sure, to her dying day, that the New Haven police set up that robbery.

Maybe. Maybe not. But the woman who changed Connecticut and U.S. history knew firsthand that just because you were paranoid back then, it doesn’t mean they weren’t out to get you.

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posted by: Roger Vann on October 22, 2007  9:39am

Great tribute Paul. Ms. Roraback was a giant in the civil liberties community both in Connecticut and nationally. Although her legacy is certain to endure, her passing should remind us all of how much is truly at stake under our current U.S. Supreme Court.

posted by: msfreeh on October 22, 2007  9:54am

for a partial catalogue of crimes committed by FBI agents see:… on home in upper left then click on forum in upper right.
scroll down to fbi watch and open.
90 pages of crimes committed by FBI agents.

posted by: cedarhillresident on October 22, 2007  11:11am

I was just talking about todays COINTELPRO and the fact that they are still up and running strong! I guess that is my bit of Paranoia.

Thank you for share this Paul! How great to have had the chance to speak with a woman so great in shaping the world to be a better place.

posted by: ecoAvila on October 22, 2007  2:21pm

BlackPanther8 in the political trial of the of the 21th century 2007 for the 1971 assassination of SFPD.took 8 americans to pull the trigger.
Calling on the spirit Catherine Roraback to free jalil mustaqim and herman bell,and a Puerto rican in the mix.
SanFrancisco dreaming of executing 8 American’s in .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)/

posted by: albert vosburn on October 22, 2007  2:54pm

The Panthers were a blight on the city of New Haven.  They were as miserable a group as the KKK—who will defend FBI infiltration into that organization?

The Panthers offered nothing to the community they pretended to lead, except violent revenge on whites, the vast majority of whom were entirely innocent of any criminal act towards them.

Do you remember the riots?  The welded man-hole covers for fear of bombs planted in the sewers?  The Housing Authority staff who carried handguns because they were afraid of attack?

Someone had to defend the Panthers in court, if only to validate the great system of law (go live in an African nation and tell me whether you will get a fair trial there), but there is nothing admirable about defending them their cause.

posted by: bonnie815 on October 23, 2007  9:36am

I remember Catherine Roraback best for her role in defending the teen-aged Peter Reilly when he was accused of murdering his mother, Barbara Gibbons, many years ago. She believed in his innocence and was relentless in her fight to free him. And, if my memory serves me, she did it all for nearly no money. She was, indeed, an extraordinary woman - and an even more extraordinary lawyer!

posted by: ecoAvila on October 24, 2007  7:40pm

Bring Catherine Roraback
Photo on Monday,December3,2007 to SanFranciscoCourthouse for
Power to justice over Torture come and take a photo,bring your family and friends
Constitutional Gathering@Courthouse,be counted,it will count for certain.
21thCentury Trial for Freedom of Jalil Mustaqim and Herman bell.
As for AlbertWashington Nur Qiyyum RIP!

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