Weatherman Brinks Trials: 1983

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Weatherman Brinks Trials: 1983

Defendants: First trial: Cecilio Ferguson and Edward Joseph; second trial: Kuwasi Balagoon, Judith Clark, and David Gilbert
Crimes Charged: First trial: Murder, robbery, racketeering, and conspiracy; second trial: Murder and robbery
Chief Defense Lawyers: First trial: Jesse Berman, Chowke Lumumba, and William Mogulescu; second trial: The accused
Chief Prosecutors: First trial: Robert S. Litt, Stacey J. Moritz, and Paul E. Summit; second trial: Kenneth Gribetz
Judges: First trial: Kevin T. Duffy; second trial: David S. Ritter
Places: First trial: New York, New York; second trial: Goshen, New York
Dates of Trials: First trial: April 13-September 3, 1983; second trial: July 11-September 15, 1983
Verdicts: First trial: Not guilty of murder/robbery, guilty of acting as accessories after the fact; second trial: all defendants found guilty
Sentences: First trial: 121/2 years; second trial: 25 years to life

SIGNIFICANCE: Political dissent in America has a long, often violent history. Of all the extremist groups that sprang from the seventies, none was more prepared to continue that bloody tradition than a band of black rights activists who called themselves the Weather Underground.

Ten years of Weather Underground politico/criminal mayhem culminated in a botched robbery of a Brinks armored vehicle in October 1981. In making off with $1.6 million, robbers killed one guard and two policeman. After a chase four people were arrested. Over the next 15 months several more suspects were rounded up. The complexity of the case necessitated multiple trials.

In the first hearing, which opened April 13, 1983, Cecilio Ferguson and Edward Joseph stood trial with four other Weather Underground members, none of whom was charged with the Brinks robbery. The government, perplexed by how best to proceed against a gang which had been robbing and killing for much of the preceding decade, had decided on a catch-all federal action against this batch of Weathermen. One component of the prosecution was the Brinks robbery.

Before the trial, defense attorneys William Mogulescu and Jesse Berman won an important victory when they persuaded Judge Kevin Duffy that the prosecution should not be allowed to call two other gang members whose testimony was considered unreliable. However, they were less successful in keeping Tyrone Rison off the stand. He readily admitted his own complicity in the murderous robbery.

"You had the M-16 rifle, is that right?" asked defense attorney, Chowke Lumumba.

"That's correct."

"And you shot the gun at the guard who was on the ground?"

"That's correct."

"A man who was totally disarmed and helpless?"

"That's correct."

And so it went. Defense counsel depicted Rison as a thug who had done a deal with the government in exchange for a 12-year sentence, questioning whether such a man should escape so leniently while the defendants faced a lifetime behind bars?

The jury thought not. On September 3, 1983, they convicted Ferguson and Joseph only of being accessories after the fact, an outcome the defense team jubilantly declared "a defeat for the government."

Judge Duffy had a different view. Sentencing both defendants to 121/2 years imprisonment, he commented, "I have never understood juries."

A Straightforward Case

The state trial against Kuwasi Balagoon, Judith Clark, and David Gilbert began on July 11, 1983, and was far more clear-cut. Here the charges related entirely to the Brinks robbery, allowing the jury to concentrate more fully on the facts of one case, rather than be confused by several. At least it should have been that way, until the defendants, declaring themselves "freedom fighters," refused to mount a conventional defense. When Judge David Ritter clashed with Balagoon, the prisoner said, "In that case I'm leaving," and he stormed from the courtroom accompanied by his co-defendants. Gilbert yelled, "All the oppressors will fail." Clark chimed in with, "Death to U.S. imperialism."

Their departure left prosecutor Kenneth Gribetz an open field. Over two weeks he presented 86 witnesses and some devastating evidence. Clark and Gilbert had been arrested on the day of the murder in a car with $800,000 of the stolen money, while Balagoon's palm print was found on bags of the stolen money.

When the prosecution rested, the defendants deigned to return. Their only witness, Sekou Odinga, already convicted of robbery in the preceding federal trial, justified the Brinks murders because the victims had obstructed the "expropriation" of money earmarked to create the black Republic of New Africa in five Southern U.S. states. Odinga further rationalized the theft, saying it was designed "to take back some of the wealth that was robbed through the slave labor that was forced on them and their ancestors."

Both Clark and Gilbert warmed to this theme. Gilbert said, "I just want to meet you, Comrade Odinga, and express my respect for you for twenty years of commitment for the New African people, and all oppressed people." Clark sought reassurance, wondering if white persons, like herself, "have a responsibility to struggle for the rights of oppressed people, for their human rights and self-determination?" Odinga gave ready assent, then was led away to begin his own 40-year jail term.

When the jury returned its guilty verdict September 15, 1983, prosecutor Gribetz's only complaint concerned the sentencing: "We're upset, frankly, that there's no death penalty." On October 6, Judge David Ritter sentenced each defendant the maximum three consecutive life terms in prison without possibility of parole until each had served 75 years.

On June 14, 1984, yet another Weatherman, Samuel Brown, was convicted of complicity in the Brinks murders and later jailed for 75 years.

Ironically, the most notorious Weather Underground member, Kathy Boudin, never stood trial. This daughter of left-wing radicals and a lifelong extremist, plea-bargained her way to a 20-year jail sentence.

These trials reveal how, masquerading under the guise of political activism, the Weathermen slid from committed principle into heartless criminality. In doing so, they trod a well-worn path as agents of change who succeeded only in changing themselves.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

Castellucci, John. The Big Dance. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1986.

Frankfort, Ellen. Kathy Boudin And The Dance Of Death. New York: Stine & Day, 1983.

Tell, Larry. "Socialists Sue Over Suspect ID." The National Law Journal (December 7, 1981): 3ff.