Ohio 7 Sedition Trial: 1989
Ohio 7 Sedition Trial: 1989
Defendants: Patricia Gros Levasseur, Raymond Luc Levasseur, Richard C. Williams
Crimes Charged: Seditious conspiracy to overthrow the government; racketeering; conspiracy to engage in racketeering
Chief Defense Lawyers: Peter Avenia, Robert Boyle, Elizabeth Fink, Kenneth J. King, William Newman
Chief Prosecutors: David Douglass, Michael K. Loucks
Judge: William G. Young
Place: Springfield, Massachusetts
Date of Trial: April 21, 1988-November 29, 1989
Verdict: All three acquitted of charge of seditious conspiracy; Patricia Levasseur also acquitted of racketeering; mistrial declared for racketeering for Raymond Levasseur and Richard Williams; mistrial declared for all three for conspiracy to engage in racketeering
SIGNIFICANCE: In what was up to that time the longest and most expensive trial in the history of Massachusetts, the federal government chose to try three individuals on what many observers regarded as problematic charges. And in fact, two of the three were already serving long sentences for the basic crimes behind these charges, while the third defendant was merely the wife of one of the others. When the trial ended with no convictions, it also turned out to be one of the most controversial—and highly criticized—trials in the history of Massachusetts.
Of the several underground-activist groups associated with the radicalization of various young Americans in the 1970s—such as the Symbionese Liberation Army and the Weathermen—one of the less publicized was the United Freedom Front (UFF), also referred to as the Sam Melville-Jonathan Jackson Brigade (SMJJ). Operating in the Northeast, led by Raymond Luc Levasseur and composed of a small circle of mainly working-class men and women, its announced targets were American corporations that continued to do business with South Africa, the American government's support for Latin American rightist dictatorships, and anyone it perceived as associated with racism and economic injustice in America.
The Underlying Crimes
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the UFF was alleged to have conducted a number of bank robberies and bombings in New England and New York. In one of the latter, a bombing of the Suffolk County Courthouse in Boston, Massachusetts, 22 people were injured, the most serious of whom had to have his leg amputated below the knee. The members eluded authorities until five of them were arrested in Cleveland, Ohio, in November 1984; two more were arrested in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1985. In April 1986, a Brooklyn, New York jury found six of the seven guilty of various bombings and they were sentenced to terms ranging from 15 years to life. The seventh, Patricia Gros Levasseur, was found guilty of the charge of harboring a fugitive—the group's leader, Raymond Luc Levasseur, her husband and father of their three children. In separate trials, one of the members, Thomas M. Manning, was also found guilty of murdering a New Jersey state policeman, while another, Jaan Karl Laaman, was convicted of armed assault in a shootout with a Massachusetts state trooper.
Raising the Stakes
By 1986, all seven individuals were behind bars when the U.S. government decided to indict them on the charges of seditious conspiracy to overthrow the government and also to have engaged in "racketeering." The first charge was based on a law from the Civil War era, designed specifically to round up Confederate loyalists in the North. The second charge was based on the socalled Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute, better known as the RICO statute and drawn up to deal with organized crime. It's not clear why the U.S. government chose to move ahead with this case, considering that the major defendants were already serving long sentences for the actions behind the alleged conspiracy and racketeering. The government appears to have been motivated essentially by the desire to send a warning signal to anyone who might consider underground violence on behalf of such causes.
Although the group would become known as the Ohio 7 because of where five had been arrested, the trial was scheduled to be held in Boston because of the Suffolk County Courthouse bombing. But because of extensive pretrial publicity in Boston, and the realization that security arrangements would greatly disrupt the federal court building there, the trial was relocated 100 miles to the west, to Springfield. Elaborate and expensive security arrangements were put into place there, including the preparations for a new courtroom.
Before the jury selection began in April 1988, the government decided to drop the charges against two defendants, Thomas Manning and Jaan Karl Laaman. Manning was already serving a life sentence without parole and Laaman was serving at least 40 years for their earlier convictions. The government admitted this would help to "simplify" what promised to be a very long trial. The government also decided to hold a separate trial for Barbara Curzi Laaman when a federal court ruled that the evidence seized in the raid of her home was illegal. Then Carol Manning, wife of Thomas, accepted a plea bargain that added a fine to the 15 years she was already serving. In March 1988, Patricia Levasseur was released on parole, having completed 3 and one-half years in prison, but she now faced as many as 60 years along with her codefendants, Raymond Luc Levasseur and Richard Williams.
The Long Road to the Verdicts Begins
The jury selection process began on April 21, 1988, but because of the reluctance of so many people to get involved in what promised to be such a lengthy trial and various other delays, it was not until January 10, 1989, that the trial proper began. Raymond Levasseur, recognized as the leader, chose to represent himself in court, and from the outset freely admitted that he was a revolutionary while denying that he was a criminal or racketeer. Williams's defense was based on essentially the same position although he did not choose to adopt such a defiantly revolutionary stance. But Patricia Levasseur's defense was to be quite different. One of her attorneys, William Newman, in his opening statement, said:
Proof will not be shown that she ever robbed a bank, cased a bank or drove a getaway care. It did not happen. She wasn't a bomber, a bank robber, or an attempted murderer.
Rather, said Newman, whatever she did was simply out of dedication to her family:
She did everything you'd expect from a caring mother. She enrolled her children in school, took them to doctors' appointments … baked cookies for PTA meetings … grew a garden.
Newman also attacked the government's use of charged terms such as "underground," "safe house," and "cell" designed to prejudice the jury:
Underground? She only joined her husband to be away from the eyes and ears of the government. She didn't live in a safe house. She lived in a home. It wasn't a cell. It was a marriage.
The government called witness after witness—eventually adding up to almost 200—and introduced some 1,700 pieces of evidence. But much of the evidence and testimony was less than convincing. A teller from a bank in Maine that the government alleged had been robbed by members of the UFF, for instance, could only testify that a ski-masked robber had stuck a revolver in her ribs; she could not identify any of the three defendants on trial.
Among the major pieces of evidence were several notebooks in which were recorded the group's concerns and plans; Patricia Levasseur's lawyer, Elizabeth Fink, used a novel argument in her summation to the jury, claiming that at least her client—with three young children underfoot—could not be implicated with this:
Many of you on the jury know what it is like to raise children and you will understand that the women of this group were the primary caregivers. The children would have fought and needed feeding, and diaper changes, and they would have cried.… There would have been a lot of preoccupation with children in this sort of group. Yet none of this is reflected in the notebooks.
In the end, Raymond Levasseur, in summing up his own case for the jury, tried to justify the actions of his "brigade" by a historical analogy:
Martin Luther King said there is nothing wrong with a traffic light that says you have to stop for a red light. But when a fire is raging, the fire truck goes right through the red light. He added that people all over the world are bleeding to death from deep social and economic wounds. They need brigades of ambulance drivers who will have to ignore the red lights of the present system.
Expensive Acquittals and Mistrials
Although there was evidence to connect the two men with at least some of the bombings and robberies, it was difficult to prove that these actions added up to "racketeering" as defined by the statute, let alone a consistent plot to overthrow the government. And that is evidently how the jurors saw things. After 18 days of deliberation, they came in with a unanimous verdict to acquit all three on the charge of seditious conspiracy. They also acquitted Patricia Levasseur on the charge of racketeering, but they said they could not agree on that charge for the two men or with the conspiracy to engage in racketeering for the three of them. The judge asked them to go back into session and try to come to some decision. Instead, after another day and a half of deliberation, the jury came back and reported they were "hopelessly deadlocked." The judge thus declared a mistrial on the racketeering charges, and in January 1990, the government announced it would not ask for a new trial. The Springfield trial, including jury selection, had run for over 19 months and—including all associated investigative, legal, and security fees—had cost the government by some estimates as much as $60 million.
—John S. Bowman
Suggestions for Further Reading
Boston Globe September 1, 1988; January 9, 1989; March 26, 1989; April 26, 1989; November 5, 26, 28, 30 1989.
Churchill, Ward, and Jim Vander Wall. The COINTELPRO Papers. Boston: South Bend Press, 1990.
Hartford Courant (January 12, 1989).