Jack Henry Abbott Trial: 1982

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Jack Henry Abbott Trial: 1982

Defendant: Jack Henry Abbott
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyer: Ivan S. Fisher
Chief Prosecutor: James H. Fogel
Judge: Irving Lang
Place: New York, New York
Dates of Trial: January 4-21, 1982
Verdict: Guilty of first-degree manslaughter
Sentence: 15 years to life imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: The outrage that surrounded Jack Abbott's trial was deep and understandable. Public opinion took the view that, had it not been for influential but naive intellectuals, Abbott would have remained behind bars and one young life would have been saved.

While in jail, convicted killer Jack Abbott began a correspondence with author Norman Mailer. Mailer encouraged Abbott in his writing and helped to find a publisher for these letters which were released, to great critical acclaim, under the title In The Belly Of The Beast. Mailer petitioned Abbott's parole board, describing Abbott as "a powerful and important American writer." They promised to review Abbott's record.

Since age 12 (he was then 35) he had spent less than six months out of jail. Minor thefts had led to more serious bank robberies. In 1966 he received an extra 14-year jail term for stabbing a fellow prisoner to death. The board decided to parole Abbott to a halfway house in New York City. Six weeks later, on July 18, 1981, he and two female companions visited an all-night diner. Abbott got into an argument with waiter Richard Adan over use of the staff lavatory. The two took their quarrel outside, where Abbott stabbed Adan once in the heart, killing him almost instantly. Abbott fled. Police traced him to a Louisiana oil field and brought him back to New York to face trial.

Book not Admissible

Following four days of jury selection, assistant District Attorney James H. Fogel opened the state's case on January 8, 1982. He suffered an early setback when Acting Justice Irving Lang refused to admit into evidence excerpts from In The Belly Of The Beast, which the prosecution said demonstrated Abbott's predisposition to kill. One passage that Fogel particularly wanted read out contained detailed instructions on how to kill in a knife-fight: "You have to move into total activity from a totally inactive posture to sink a knife in as close to his heart as possible," which, said Fogel, was virtually a blueprint for what had happened to Richard Adan.

It was defense attorney Ivan S. Fisher's contention that Abbott had merely been acting in self-defense, that Adan had grabbed a knife just before the two men left the diner to settle their dispute, a point contradicted by the first witness, Roger Schwarzchild, another waiter at the diner. He said that the only weapons available to Adan were dull butter knives, but that he did not see Adan with a knife of any description. He had seen the two men step outside, then moments later Abbott re-entered the diner and said, "Let's get out of here," to his two companions.

This last statement was corroborated by one of the two women present, a Barnard College student, Susan Roxas, except that in her version Abbott added, "I just killed a man." Once outside, Abbott told the women, "You don't know me," then ran off up the street. Roxas confirmed that Abbott had been carrying a knife earlier in the evening and that all three in the party had been drinking heavily.

Just Like the Book

Another witness, Wayne Larsen, told of seeing Abbott and Adan outside the diner. After a brief dispute, Abbott had lunged at the other man with a knife. Adan staggered back, clutching his chest. Abbott screamed, "Do you still want to continue this?" Adan, bleeding profusely, replied: "God no. Are you crazy? I already told you I don't."

Earlier rumors that Norman Mailer would testify on Abbott's behalf proved erroneous. It was left to Abbott alone to give the court some insight into the rigors of prison life, rigors that he claimed had honed his paranoia to a lethal level. In the midst of tearfully recounting his brawl with Adan, Abbott was caught off guard when the victim's father-in-law, Henry Howard, suddenly leapt up and yelled, "Abbott, you scum! You useless scum! It's just like the book, Abbott, just like in the book." Still shouting, Howard was led away.

Abbott took the interruption coolly, eyes blinking through gold-rimmed spectacles, and continued with his version of events on the fateful night. Adan had approached him outside the diner. "I was going to run, but then I thought, 'You don't do that.' "Adan kept coming. Abbott claimed that Adan went for a knife (none was ever found), that he had tried to block it, and that a brief struggle ensued. "All of a sudden the knife was in his chest and it was dead still. It was one of the most tragic misunderstandings I can imagine."

Abbott's culpability was never in dispute, only the degree. After more than 24 hours of deliberation, the jury adjudged him guilty of first-degree manslaughter, but not murder. On April 15, 1982, Judge Irving Lang sentenced Abbott to 15 years to life imprisonment. He did so regretfully, blaming Abbott's behavior on "a prison system that brutalizes rather than rehabilitates."

Norman Mailer, asked for his opinion on the verdict, sounded melancholic. "What can I saythe man is used to jail. Jail, sadly enough, is his home."

This case is eerily similar to that of Edgar Smith, when another renowned literary figure, William F. Buckley, took up a murderer's cause with disastrous repercussions. But it also highlights the problem facing all parole boards: balancing humanitarian concerns for the inmate against the public's right to protection from its worst elements. One cannot escape the nagging suspicion that, in this case at least, the weight of celebrity opinion counted for more than common sense.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

Abbott, Jack. In The Belly Of The Beast. New York: Vintage, 1981.

Gaute, J.H.H. and Robin Odell. The Murderers' Who's Who. London: W.H. Allen, 1989.

Wilson, Colin and Donald Seaman. Encyclopedia of Modern Murder. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1983.

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