Angela Davis Trial: 1972
Angela Davis Trial: 1972
Defendant: Angela Y. Davis
Crimes Charged: Murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy
Chief Defense Lawyers: Leo Branton, Jr., Margaret Burnham, Howard Moore, Jr., Sheldon Otis, and Dorris Brin Walker
Chief Prosecutor: Albert Harris
Judge: Richard E. Arnason
Place: San Jose, California
Dates of Trial: February 28-June 4, 1972
Verdict: Not guilty
SIGNIFICANCE: A unique mix of murder, race, and politics ensured that this trial could never be anything but memorable.
At 10:45 A.NM. on August 7, 1970, a gunman interrupted the Marin County trial of San Quentin inmate James McClains, who was facing a charge of attempted murder. The gunman, Jonathan Jackson, younger brother of George Jackson, one of the so-called "Soleded Brothers," distributed weapons to McClain and two other men, Ruchell Magee and William Christmas. Together, they took Judge Harold Haleys prosecutor Gary Thomas, and three women jurors hostages then attempted to flee in a van. When guards opened fire, Haley, Jackson, McClain, and Christmas were killed. Thomas and Magee sustained serious injuries.
Suspicion that the plot had been connected to the Soleded Brothers, three radical black Soleded Prison inmates, hardened with the abrupt disappearance of Angela Davis, a controversial professor and Soleded supporter, recently fired from the University of California at Los Angeles for her Communist sympathies. She remained at large until her discovery in New York on October 13. Following extradition she was arraigned on charges of murder, conspiracy, and kidnapping, as prosecutors sought to prove that Davis had engineered the escape attempt in a bid to barter hostages for the freedom of her lover, George Jackson.
The task of selecting a jury began before Judge Richard E. Arnason on February 28, 1972. The racial/political overtones made this an especially sensitive issue, but eventually an all-white jury was impaneled, and prosecutor Albert Harris was able to make his opening address. He outlined four elements necessary to establishing guilt through circumstantial evidence: motive, means, opportunity, and consciousness of guilt. "The evidence will show," he said, "that her [Davis'] basic motive was not to free political prisoners, but to free the one prisoner that she loved." The means came on August 5, 1970, when, in the company of Jonathan Jackson, "she purchased the shotgun that was used in the commission of the crime." Harris felt that those days preceding the crime, many of which Davis spent in the company of Jonathan Jackson, provided the opportunity to commit the crime; and finally consciousness of guilt was evidenced by the fact that just hours after the shooting, Davis boarded a flight at San Francisco and went into hiding.
Davis Ridicules Case
Despite having assembled an imposing team of attorneys, Davis chose to make the opening defense address herself. Wisely, she kept the political rhetoric to a minimum, preferring to underscore serious flaws in the prosecution's case—the fact that she had bought the shotgun quite openly in her own name, and, more importantly, her insistence that the Marin shooting had nothing to do with George Jackson. "The evidence will show that there's absolutely no credible proof of what the precise purpose of August 7 was."
This argument was countered by a prosecution witness, news photographer James Kean. He had taken several photographs of the incident and testified to hearing McClain say, "Tell them we want the Soleded Brothers released by twelve o'clock."
Chief defense attorney, Leo Branton cross-examined: 1 his remark that was made about freeing the Soleded Brothers—it was the last thing that was said just as the group got on the elevator. is that a fact?"
"Yes. That's right."
"You never heard Jonathan Jackson say anything about free the Soleded Brothers, did you?"
"No, I did not."
"You didn't hear anybody say it other than McClain and it was the last thing he said as he headed down the elevator; is that right?"
"As though it were a parting gesture, is that correct?"
"That's right." 9
Branton must have been satisfied, and even more so when Deputy Sheriff Theodore Hughes testified that he had heard some of the escapees shout clearly, "Free our brothers at Folsom, free all our brothers." Again, no reference to Soleded.
Less easy to dispose of was the prosecution's star witness, Gary Thomas. Permanently paralyzed by his bullet wound, he was brought into court in a wheelchair. The key part of his testimony was an insistence that he had seen Magee shoot Judge Haley with the shotgun. Thomas recalled that he "watched the right side of the judge's face pull slowly away from his skull."
Branton had the unenviable task of attempting to prove how Thomas' recollection might have been clouded by the trauma he had suffered. "Isn't it a fact, sir, that the first fusillade of shots that came into the van killed both Jonathan Jackson and McClain, and that you thereupon grabbed the gun that McClain was holding … and that you turned around and began firing into the back of the van … and that you hit Christmas and you hit Magee, and you possibly even hit Judge Haley?"
Thomas angrily refuted the assertion and Branton had to back down. He made little headway with Thomas, apart from getting the witness to agree that at no time did he ever hear anyone mention the Soleded Brothers.
Mysterious Telephone Number Surfaces
Prosecutor Harris next turned his attention to a piece of paper found on the body of Jonathan Jackson. On it was written a telephone number that corresponded to a public telephone at San Francisco International Airport. Harris contended that this clearly demonstrated a predisposition on the part of Jonathan Jackson to telephone Angela Davis at the airport, and that once Davis didn't receive the call she panicked and took the next available flight out to Los Angeles.
All of this sounded fine but did not bear close inspection. First of all, Branton established that the telephone was in the South Terminal, near the Western Airlines counter. Why, he speculated, had nobody seen Davis waiting by the phone? And why had she left the Western Airlines counter, which operated a convenient hourly shuttle to Los Angeles, and then walked over to the Central Terminal to catch a flight on Pacific Southwest Airlines? It didn't make sense.
In one last desperate effort to salvage their case, the prosecutors fought to introduce into evidence an 18-page "diary" that Davis had kept. While the diary clearly documented the intense love that Davis felt for George Jackson, it did not provide any evidence to support the indictment.
Such a lackluster prosecution hardly merited much of a response. Branton called just 12 witnesses to support his assertion that Angela Davis was entirely innocent, a mere victim of her own notoriety. The case went to the jury on June 2, 1972. They came back two days later with not-guilty verdicts on all three charges.
But for Angela Davis it was a Pyrrhic victory. Six months before she faced her accusers, George Jackson was himself shot to death in an alleged prison break.
Before the trial many, including some on her own defense team, doubted Angela Davis' chances of receiving a fair hearing from an all-white jury. That the jurors were able to separate politics and race from the essential facts of the case speaks volumes for their integrity, making this one of the legal system's finer moments.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Aptheker, Bettina. The Morning Breaks. New York: International, 1975.
Davis, Angela. Angela Davis. New York: International, 1988.
Major, Reginald. Justice in the Round. New York: Third Press, 1973.
Mitchell, Charlene. The Fight to Free Angela Davis. New York: Outlook, 1972.
Timothy, Mary. Jury Woman. San Francisco: Glide, 1975.