Chicago Seven Trial: 1969

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Chicago Seven Trial: 1969

Defendants: Rennard C. Davis, David Dellinger, John R. Froines, Thomas H. Hayden, Abbott Hoffman, Jerry C. Rubin, Bobby G. Seale and Lee Weiner
Crimes Charged: Incitement to riot and conspiracy
Chief Defense Lawyers: William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass
Chief Prosecutors: Roger Cubbage, Thomas A. Foran, and Richard G. Shultz
Judge: Julius J. Hoffman
Place: Chicago, Illinois
Dates of Trial: September 24, 1969-February 20, 1970
Verdict: Dellinger, Davis, Hayden, Hoffman, Rubin: Guilty; Froines and Weiner: Not guilty; Seale: Mistrial
Sentence: 5 years imprisonment, $5,000 fine

SIGNIFICANCE: This was possibly the most divisivecertainly the most chaoticpolitical trial in American history.

The 1968 Democratic National Convention marked a watershed in American social unrest, as anti-Vietnam War protesters of every political hue descended on Chicago, Illinois, determined to undermine the convention and provoke a confrontation with authorities. They succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. Pitched battles in the streets led to grand jury indictments against eight conspicuously left-wing radicals: Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, John Froines, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Bobby Seale, and Lee Weiner. Each was charged with having crossed state lines to incite a riot, an offense that had been on the statute book less than nine months. Collusion between the accused was clearly not an issueSeale did not even meet his co-defendants until the trial. More important was the government's resolve to quash antiwar protest with what amounted to an attack on the entire spectrum of political dissent.

Rarely does a member of the bench achieve or desire the celebrity that this trial afforded to Judge Julius Hoffman, who right from day one, September 24, 1969, displayed a pugnacious combativeness that was both ill-considered and wholly unjudicial. Seventy-three years old, humorless, and with a reputation for rulings sympathetic to the government, Hoffman's hostility toward the defendants was all too apparent.

On opening day, when U.S. Attorney Thomas Foran angrily objected because four lawyers listed for the defense were not present in courtall had withdrawn from the case by telegramHoffman immediately issued warrants for the arrest of the offending attorneys, then poured oil on troubled waters by temporarily jailing two of them for contempt of court. Such a firestorm of protest from the legal community greeted this action that Hoffman was obliged to rescind the order and allow the lawyers to withdraw.

Defense attorney duties were shared by William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass. Neither had an easy task. Besides battling the bench, they had Bobby Seale to contend with. Seale, a militant black activist, refused to accept either one as his attorney and on September 26 submitted a handwritten note to the court: "I submit to Judge Julius Hoffman that the trial be postponed until a later date when I, Bobby G. Seale, can have the "legal council [sic] of choice who is effective,' Attorney Charles R. Garry, and if my constitutional rights are not respected by this court then other lawyers on record here do not speak for me I fire them now." Judge Hoffman, taking exception to being characterized in the note as "a blatant racist," angrily denied the motion.

Seale Bound and Gagged

Seale wouldn't be stifled. He continued to disrupt the proceedings, yelling such epithets as "pig" and "fascist" at Hoffman, likening him to a plantation slave owner. Finally, on October 29, Hoffman's thin reserve of patience ran out and he ordered Seale gagged and bound to a chair. As Seale struggled to free himself, court attendants roughly manhandled him, an action that brought Kunstler to his feet in loud protest: "Your Honor, are we going to stop this medieval torture that is going on in this courtroom? I think this is a disgrace."

With the situation fast getting out of hand, Judge Hoffman declared a mistrial as to Seale, thus severing his case from the other seven defendants. Simultaneously he found Seale guilty of 16 counts of contempt and jailed him for four years.

Virtually overshadowed by this extracurricular mayhem was the fact that the prosecution had amassed a formidable case against the remaining accused. Its main witnesses were police officers, each of whom testified to examples of incendiary behavior on the part of the accused.

Robert Murray, an undercover police sergeant, described being in Lincoln Park, scene of one particularly violent clash between police and demonstrators, and seeing defendant Jerry Rubin in conversation with a television newsman. When the reporter had intimated that he was about to leave, Murray claimed that Rubin had called him back, saying, "Wait, don't go right now. We're going out in the ball field. We want to see what these pigs [police officers] are going to do about it."

Prosecutor Foran asked, "How many police officers were standing there?"

"Ten policemen," said Murray, "and one sergeant."

Murray had carefully monitored Rubin's behavior throughout the night.

I saw him walking through the park, walking up to small groups, having a conversation with them and leaving I heard him say that "we have to fight the pigs in the park tonight. we're not going to let them take the park.'

Crucial evidence of intent to riot came with the testimony of newspaper reporter Dwayne Oklepek, who spoke of attending a meeting August 9, 1968, at which defendants Hayden, Davis, and Froines were present. Oklepek told how Davis produced a street map of Chicago and plans for a march on August 28, 1968: "Mr. Davis felt that the separate groups should form up and then attempt to move their way south to the Loop area. He went on to say that he thought these groups should try to disrupt traffic, should smash windows, run through stores and through the streets."

"Do you recall anything else that was discussed?" asked Foran.

"Someone asked Mr. Davis what would occur if it were impossible for the demonstrators to get out of Lincoln Park and Mr. Davis said, 'That's easy, we just riot.'"

In this fashion the prosecution was able to mount a strong case of incitement to riot, at least against some of the defendants, but whether that incitement fell within the provisions of the recent law, with its proviso that a state line had to be traversed, remained in doubt.

Star-Studded Witnesses Appear

To combat allegations of malicious intent, defense attorney William Kunstler had assembled a prodigious list of eminent character witnesses. The roll call included Norman Mailer, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Allen Ginsburg, William Styron, Arlo Guthrie, Country Joe McDonald, Judy Collins, Phil Ochs, Mark Lane, Timothy Leary, even a British Member of Parliament, Anne Kerr.

Apart from their eloquence and name value, there was little that these witnesses could offer the court in the way of direct evidence. Neither did the defendants help themselves. All seemed more interested in advancing their political agenda. Abbie Hoffman's opening remarks set the tone. Asked to identify himself for the record, he said, "My name is Abbie. I am an orphan of America. I live in Woodstock Nation." When defense counsel Leonard Weinglass requested clarification, Hoffman eagerly seized his opportunity. "It is a nation of alienated young people. We carry it around with us as a state of mind." Weinglass concluded his direct examination with a simple question:

"Prior to coming to Chicago, from April 1968 on to the week of the Convention, did you enter into an agreement with [the other defendants] to come to the city of Chicago for the purpose of encouraging and promoting violence during the Convention week?"

"An agreement?"


"We couldn't agree on lunch!"

Cross-examination by prosecutor Richard Schultz was less conciliatory but equally frivolous, as Hoffman and his fellow defendants refused to recognize the court's legitimacy. Their crude, often childish antics exacted a heavy toll from Judge Hoffman, whose exasperation found ventilation in a litany of unfortunate remarks directed toward the defendants and their counsel.

After months of confusion and much rambling testimony, closing arguments began on February 10, 1970. The final word was left with prosecutor Thomas Foran. Describing the defendants, he said, "They are not kids. Davis, the youngest one, took the witness stand. He is twenty-nine. These are highly sophisticated, educated men and they are evil men." Uproarious laughter greeted this remark. In trying to paint a picture of latent villainy, Foran succeeded only in generating humor.

All things considered, Judge Hoffman's final charge to the jurors was remarkably subdued, and on February 14 they retired to consider their verdict.

Guilty Verdicts Multiply

Judge Hoffman used the hiatus to deal with the numerous contempt of court citations that had accrued throughout the trial. He found all seven defendants and their attorneys guilty of no less than 159 counts. Sentences varied from 2-4 months for Weiner, to four years for Kunstler.

Speculation that the jury would be unable to reach a decision proved unfounded. On February 18, 1970, they adjudged Davis, Dellinger, Hayden, Hoffman, and Rubin guilty, while acquitting Froines and Weiner. Two days later Judge Hoffman passed sentence. Each defendant received the maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

A long round of appellate action ensued. It began with the contempt verdicts. On May 11, 1972, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed all of these convictions on grounds that, because Judge Hoffman had been targeted by the attack, due process dictated that he should not sit in judgment on the contempt charges.

In November 1972 the appellate court overturned all five incitement to riot convictions, citing numerous errors by Judge Hoffman and the prosecution attorneys. In particular, they denounced Judge Hoffman's "deprecatory and often antagonistic attitude toward the defense." Scale, too, had his conviction overturned.

The government elected not to retry the incitement case, but did proceed on the contempt charges, with the result that in November 1973, Dellinger, Kunstler, Hoffman, and Rubin were again convicted. However, Judge Edward Gignoux signaled an end to the whole unsavory affair by deciding that the imposition of further jail sentences was unwarranted.

By any reckoning the Chicago Conspiracy trial has to be considered a low-water mark in American jurisprudence. Nobody emerged from the conflict untarnished. Ironically, the only victor was the legal system itself. Mocked and derided by the defendants, it bent and on occasion threatened to break, but ultimately it came to the assistance of those who decried it most.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

Belknap, Michael P. American Political Trials. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981.

Clavir, Judy and John Spitzer. The Conspiracy Trial. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1970.

Epstein, Jason. The Great Conspiracy Trial. New York: Random House, 1970.

Goldberg, Stephanie Benson. "Lessons of the 60's." ABA Journal. (May 15, 1987): 32ff.

Shultz, John. Motion Will Be Denied. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1972.

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Chicago Seven Trial: 1969

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