Legal Left Says the Heat is On
ASHEVILLE, North Caroline — Paranoia? Not according to attorneys Arthur Kinoy and William Kunstler. Not if you’ve read the headlines for the past week. “I don’t want to sound like a Cassandra,” said Kunstler, speaking at a recent conference for movement lawyers, “but I don’t have to. It’s no longer a guess. It’s here.”
Kinoy outlined a cluster of grim developments that had staggered him over a 24-hour period: refusal by the government to postpone the trial of the Chicago “Conspiracy Eight”; indictment of Bobby Seale on a first-degree murder charge — “the first time the chairman of a national political party faces the electric chair”; refusal by a referral district court to reduce the $100,000 bail of 17 defendants from the New York “Panther 21” by the counsel for the House of Representatives that it had no intention of following the virtually unanimous Supreme Court decision reinstating Adam Clayton Powell, and the district judge then issued no order, saying this country “suffers too much from government by judicial oligarchy”; and finally, withdrawal by the government of its Mississippi desegregation plan, which prompted the revolt or half the lawyers in the civil rights division of the Justice Department.
And Kinoy paused, stopped pacing, his hands gripped the table, and his voice dropped to a whisper: “What the hell is going on?”
Kunstler, also of the Law Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, focused on Seale. Movement leaders no longer face minor penalties, misdemeanor charges, and a few worthy months in jail. Seale, said Kunstler, faces the very real likelihood of execution. “The fun has gone out of our practice. We now face a deadening responsibility.”
The government’s case is good. There is incontrovertible proof that Seale was in New Haven on May 19, the night Alex Rackley was allegedly tortured and beaten for informing on the “Panther 21”; Seale was speaking at Yale. Police say they have the murder weapon, a .45. Police say they have tapes of the kangaroo “trial” of Rackley. And police say they have telephone proof that Seale was in the New Haven house where the trial and torture took place. Finally, police now have George Sams’s affidavit, and George Sams’s affidavit is strong stuff.
According to Sams, Seale stopped by the Panther house and, when told of Rackley’s treachery, ordered him to be killed. Legally, that means murder one. There is no room for self-defense or non-premeditation. There is no room for a mitigating defense, no room for reduction to manslaughter, as with Huey Newton.
Sams’s affidavit could be strengthened if corroborated by one or more of the Panthers in the New Haven house. There are six girls age 16 and under. Faced with the possibility of death for murder, it is not inconceivable that one or more might cop a plea, get 20 years, be out in seven — at the age of 23 — and testify that Seale did order the killing.
And finally, there is the sensationalism of the crime itself. Rackley was reportedly tortured with boiling water. He was brutally murdered and dumped in a swamp. Seale himself was melodramatically picked up on a federal fugitive warrant for “unlawful flight to avoid prosecution,” at night, in his car, and arrested by about 20 FBI agents, with shotguns.
“These are enormous odds,” said Kunstler. ”I don’t know how we can overcome them. We need a major miracle, and that can only be the breaking of George Sams’s story.”
So far, little is known about Sams. He was expelled from the party for stabbing another Panther in the leg, but was returned at the request of Stokely Carmichael. The circumstances of his capture, indicated Kunstler, are extremely suspicious. All the Panthers indicted for the New Haven plot were picked up almost immediately. Only Sams remained mysteriously at large, months after the crime, prompting a series of raids of Panther headquarters across the country. Then, quite extraordinarily, Sams is found in Toronto, not the most likely refuge for a fugitive Panther.
This summer’s raids and persecutions of Panthers by the government may stack up as child’s play if Seale is convicted. No one knows how much of a scare this could put into the movement, and no one knows how much it might alienate the broader base of Panther support. But few at the conference disagreed with the importance of Kunstler’s call for a crusade to Connecticut.
The speeches by Kunstler and Kinoy marked the emotional watershed of the 10-day conference organized by the Southern Legal Action Movement (SLAM). About 160 movement lawyers and law students shared notes, conferred, debated, and partied in this picture-book retreat in the North Carolina Smokies, with ideologies from ACLU to SOS. The focus of the conference was the South, but topics of discussion included the military, poverty law, school strikes, narcotics, political repression, housing, and new life-styles for lawyers. ❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 16, 2020