THE CHICAGO EIGHT TRIAL is known as one of the most unsusual courtroom spectacles in American history, the 1969-70 trial of eight radicals accused of conspiring to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Following the April assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, riots erupted in cities leaving people dead . After Senator Eugene McCarthy challenged incumbent President Lyndon Johnson over his support of the war, Johnson withdrew from the race. Congress had passed that law, the Anti-Riot Act of 1968, shortly after the urban uprisings in cities across the States following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968. That federal law, put bluntly, made it illegal to travel across state lines to “incite a riot.”
Congress, riots, federal laws, murder, trial, Chicago eight, attorney general, scotus, Memphis stae
In March 1969, President Richard Nixon’s newly appointed attorney general, John Mitchell, signed off on the prosecution of eight men, all left-wing activists, for their involvement in August 1968 protests at the National Democratic Presidential Nominating Convention in Chicago. The menincluded prominent leaders especially Tom Hayden, s the main progenitor of the student New Left. Another ones, Dave Dellinger, was the head of the largest anti-war organization in the United States. Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin championed a hybrid organization, the Yippies. Bobby Seale was the chairman of the Black Panthers. The sixth prominent figure was Rennie Davis, perhaps the anti-war movement’s best nuts-andbolts organizer.
Prosecutors argued that these were revolutionaries fighting for justice to discredit the American political system. Julius Hoffman made clear his absolute contempt for the defendants. The Chicago Eight would, eventually, be found not guilty on all counts, but not before millions of Americans recoiled from the politically motivated and politically charged prosecution. At the same time, many millions more embraced the kind of fierce “law and order” politics that underlay Richard Nixon’s presidency. The Chicago eight trial was a milestone in legal history, the defendents demanded the right to challenge the government’s specific charges, but to also challenge the legitimacy and fair mindedness of the case. During the trial many americans concluded that justice is not always
blind and that politics could and did play a powerful role in how justice was served in the United States.
Abbie Hoffman, argued during the trial that if powerful elites used the justice system to prosecute powerless minorities then Americans had the right to call out injustice even if that means disruptings the court bound rules this. He told Judge Hoffman: “When decorum is repression, the only dignity that free men have is the right to speak out.” His powerful and provocative claim about the balance between the need for civility and order and the right of the powerless to be heard still echoes through the halls of justice and in every corridor of power in America’s democracy.
Protests at the Democratic National Convention
In August 1968, around 10,000 people had gathered in Chicago, site of the Democratic National Convention, to protest primarily against the Vietnam War. Some 12,000 policemen, 6,000 National Guardsmen and 6,000 soldiers were there to meet them. Chicago officials, led by Mayor Richard J. Daley, had denied all permits to the protesters, relenting only at the last minute to allow one rally in Grant Park, just east of the city’s downtown.
Some three months after the protests, following an exhaustive investigation, the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence issued a report, Rights in Conflict. Its subtitle was “The Chicago Police Riot.” Dan Walker, a prominent Chicago lawyer and corporate executive, directed the staff that produced the report. Walker had once been a law clerk for a Supreme Court Chief Justice and was no radical. Nonetheless, he and his team reported:
The nature of the [police] response [to demonstrators’ provocations] was unrestrained and indiscriminate police violence on many occasions, particularly at night. That violence was made all the more shocking by the fact that it was often inflicted upon persons who had broken no law, disobeyed no order, made no threat … Police violence was a fact of convention week.
During the trial’s early days, Seale called out regularly that he was being deprived of his right to an attorney of his own choosing: “I fired all these lawyers a long time ago. Charles Garry [Seale’s desired lawyer] ain’t here, and I want my legal counsel here.” And then, “Let the record show … a black man cannot be discriminated against in relation to his legal defense and that is exactly what you have done.” Seale had lost all restraint and he verbally accused the court calling out the federal prosecutors. Hoffman ordered seale to be grabbed and chained to his seat. Judge Hoffman charged Seale with 16 counts of contempt and sentenced him to four years in jail; his case was severed from that of the other defendants.
The justice cuts outs the witness, Allen Ginsberg , justice allowed the proper remark on this witness to go unnoticed, they were berated before the jury, cite for contempt of court, hearsay.
Linda Morse, tried to explain the reasons the defendants had organized the protest in Chicago,the judge also cut her off. Against all obvious facts, Judge Hoffman insisted, “This is not a political case as far as I am concerned…. I can’t go into politics here in this Court.” When Defense Attorney William Kunstler attempted to read a section of the Declaration of Independence to Morse, in order to ask her about American citizens’ right to protest against their government, the judge stopped him in his tracks:
“I can think of nothing … that makes the Declaration of Independence relevant.”
The Impact of the Trial
In 1972, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reprimanded Judge Hoffman, declaring that his “deprecatory and often antagonistic attitude toward the defense” had denied the defendants their right to a fair and unbiased trial. The court of appels overturned the findings, including the dozen of contempt citations, legal change within the system seemd to be possible, at the end of the trial, Abbie Hoffman spoke for those who had lost faith in the legal analytics system,
“We cannot respect a law, a law that is tyranny … the courts are in a conspiracy of tyranny … the only order is insurrection and disrespect, and that’s what we showed, and that’s what all honorable men of free will will show.”
Abbie Hoffman later argued:
“We were young, we were reckless, arrogant, and headstrong—and we were right….We ended legal segregation…. We ended the idea that you could send a million soldiers 10,000 miles away to fight in a war that people do not support. We ended the idea that women are second-class citizens. The big battles that were won in that period of civil war and strife you cannot reverse.”
The Chicago Eight trial was not the typical criminal trial, in part because it occurred at a time of society’s polarization, student demonstrations, and the rise of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Charges were levied against eight defendants, who were individuals that represented leaders in a variety of movements and groups during this time. This Essay examines the opening stages of this trial from the lens of a then relatively new criminal defense attorney, Gerald Lefcourt. It looks at his experiences before Judge Julius Hoffman and highlights how strong, steadfast criminal defense attorneys can make a difference in protecting key constitutional rights and values. Although judicial independence is crucial to a system premised on due process, it is also important that lawyers and law professors stand up to misconduct and improprieties, as said by ELLEN S. PODGAR.
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