Free at Last?

“Twenty-one members of the Black Panther Party were indicted here yesterday on charges of plotting to kill policemen and to dynamite city department stores, a police station and a commuter railroad’s right-of-way.”

The New York Times
April 3, 1969

“Thirteen Black Panthers, including two who fled to Algeria during their trial, were acquitted yesterday on all twelve counts of [their] indictment…. The members of the jury—which included five blacks and three Puerto Ricans—reached a unanimous verdict so quickly that they surprised even themselves.”

The New York Times
May 14, 1971

For most of these defendants, the time spent in jail was more than two years, the time in court more than fifteen months, and the time the jury needed to acquit them all two and a half hours. The twenty minutes at the end belonged to the jurors; one of them, Frederick Hills, speaking over radio station WBAI, could still savor those moments a few days after the verdict:

I flashed a smile at the defense. I figured, look, it’s sixty feet from the jury room over to the jury box. Why make anybody suffer that long, when you have that kind of response? What a fine moment when this marvelous man, Mr. Fox, stands up and begins to read those “not guiltys” and it becomes like a litany, or waves breaking, and defendants start coming apart and weeping, and now they’re in each other’s arms and now some of the jurors are coming apart and this voice keeps booming out “not guilty” 156 times.

The Panthers who wept did so because they had survived; the jurors who wept did so because the Panthers had won. There is, by the way, if not an error, a curious conflict with my own recollection here. When I heard him, Foreman Ingram Fox’s tone seemed conspicuous for its restraint, for the quietness of its reiterated pronouncement of matters of fact. But to Juror Hills, his foreman’s voice seemed to book like the proclamation of an army with banners. They must have shared some inner reverberation.

They also shared, implausibly, an affection for these defendants. Yet, if one animus informed the prosecution of this case, and had seemed evident in the exemplary silence of the editors of The New York Times about every excess of that prosecution, it was the fixed conviction that, while there might somewhere exist an excuse for the Panthers, there could be no excuse for anyone who liked them. In all those two years, the only event that had stirred the editorial pages of The New York Times to really felt indignation had been the support Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Bernstein had given the efforts to raise funds for the trial expenses of the New York Panthers.*

In the same key, Assistant District Attorney Joseph Phillips plainly hated those who would defend such persons even more than he hated the persons themselves. There had been the moment in early…

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