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Angela Davis Trial: 1972

Davis Ridicules Case, Mysterious Telephone Number Surfaces

Defendant: Angela Y. Davis
Crimes Charged: Murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy
Chief Defense Lawyers: Leo Branton, Jr., Margaret Burnham, Howard Moore, Jr., Sheldon Otis, and Dorris Brin Walker
Chief Prosecutor: Albert Harris
Judge: Richard E. Arnason
Place: San Jose, California
Dates of Trial: February 28-June 4, 1972
Verdict: Not guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: A unique mix of murder, race, and politics ensured that this trial could never be anything but memorable.

At 10:45 A.NM. on August 7, 1970, a gunman interrupted the Marin County trial of San Quentin inmate James McClains, who was facing a charge of attempted murder. The gunman, Jonathan Jackson, younger brother of George Jackson, one of the so-called "Soleded Brothers," distributed weapons to McClain and two other men, Ruchell Magee and William Christmas. Together, they took Judge Harold Haleys prosecutor Gary Thomas, and three women jurors hostages then attempted to flee in a van. When guards opened fire, Haley, Jackson, McClain, and Christmas were killed. Thomas and Magee sustained serious injuries.

Suspicion that the plot had been connected to the Soleded Brothers, three radical black Soleded Prison inmates, hardened with the abrupt disappearance of Angela Davis, a controversial professor and Soleded supporter, recently fired from the University of California at Los Angeles for her Communist sympathies. She remained at large until her discovery in New York on October 13. Following extradition she was arraigned on charges of murder, conspiracy, and kidnapping, as prosecutors sought to prove that Davis had engineered the escape attempt in a bid to barter hostages for the freedom of her lover, George Jackson.

The task of selecting a jury began before Judge Richard E. Arnason on February 28, 1972. The racial/political overtones made this an especially sensitive issue, but eventually an all-white jury was impaneled, and prosecutor Albert Harris was able to make his opening address. He outlined four elements necessary to establishing guilt through circumstantial evidence: motive, means, opportunity, and consciousness of guilt. "The evidence will show," he said, "that her [Davis'] basic motive was not to free political prisoners, but to free the one prisoner that she loved." The means came on August 5, 1970, when, in the company of Jonathan Jackson, "she purchased the shotgun that was used in the commission of the crime." Harris felt that those days preceding the crime, many of which Davis spent in the company of Jonathan Jackson, provided the opportunity to commit the crime; and finally consciousness of guilt was evidenced by the fact that just hours after the shooting, Davis boarded a flight at San Francisco and went into hiding.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972