The Panthers on Trial

John Murtagh
John Murtagh; drawing by David Levine

Twenty-one members of the Black Panther Party were indicted a year ago last April for having conspired to blow up five New York department stores, a police station, the New Haven Railroad’s right of way, and the Bronx Botanical Gardens. One of them was Lee Berry, who is twenty-four and was under treatment for epilepsy at the Manhattan Veterans’ Hospital on the day of his indictment. He telephoned the police department to say where he was and report himself available for inquiry. There followed a descent in force and Berry’s summary removal to the Manhattan House of Detention, where he was held under $100,000 bail.

He endured the next seven months in surroundings whose amenities have been certified by the New York City Department of Correction: “Over-crowding has resulted in two or three men being assigned to a cell intended to accommodate a single man.” His attorneys very early began to complain that he was an invalid in a condition of casual neglect.

After three months, Assistant District Attorney Joseph Phillips responded with an affidavit from the Deputy Commissioner of Corrections, which, he said, “effectively refutes these complaints.” Even so, State Supreme Court Justice John M. Murtagh ordered Berry’s case “marked for medical attention,” not, he explained, because he gave credence to the contentions of defense counsel but simply “as a precautionary measure.”

In July, Berry’s counsel returned with a claim that Berry had been beaten by a guard. Commissioner of Corrections George F. McGrath has since, effectively so far as any action is concerned, refuted this complaint by swearing that,

The report of the institutional physician on duty at the time, Dr. Collins, indicates that Berry had a small laceration on his left eye which was treated by applying a band-aid…. [Dr. Collins] suspected epileptic seizure because of the findings of post epileptic shock at the time of the examination…. It is submitted that if plaintiff Berry was assaulted as he asserts with a blackjack there would be more substantial evidence of injury than found by Dr. Collins.

Epileptic seizure could serve the Corrections Department to explain Lee Berry’s abrasions; it was, of course, of no use to him in avoiding five days in solitary confinement for insulting the guard he had accused of beating him. His diet throughout that period of treatment was bread and tea. Somewhere, in the confusion of these disputes, his regular medication was withdrawn. His counsel consumed the summer and most of the fall urging writs to have him removed to a hospital. The hearings were put off again and again because Assistant District Attorney Phillips did not have time to attend them.

It was November before Judge Murtagh ordered Berry to Bellevue Hospital for observation. There he seems to have collapsed. He was operated on for appendicitis; the pathologist found that the hospital had removed a normal appendix. He developed pneumonia; the…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.