The trial of the Chicago Eight exemplified the state of turmoil that existed in the United States in 1968. Because the Chicago conspiracy trial opened with eight defendants, this group of radical leaders is sometimes referred to as the Chicago Eight. The trial of one defendant, BOBBY SEALE, was severed from that of the other seven; hence the name Chicago Seven is a name also used to refer to this trial.
The assassinations of Senator ROBERT F. KENNEDY and Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR., occurred within months of each other. The escalation of the VIETNAM WAR was unpopular with many U.S. citizens and a number of young men of draft age burned their draft registration cards or fled to Canada rather than risk their lives for a cause in which they did not believe. Protest demonstrations were prevalent. The turbulence in the United States culminated in events at the Democratic Presidential Convention in Chicago, Illinois, which led to a sensational courtroom trial.
Chicago was controlled politically by Mayor Richard J. Daley and his Democratic followers. When Chicago was chosen as the site for the Democratic Convention, groups of protestors decided to seize the opportunity to converge on that city to stage demonstrations and publicly espouse their views against U.S. participation in the Vietnam War. The protestors arrived from all over the nation, establishing a camp at Lincoln Park.
Mayor Daley was opposed to any incident that might cause a disturbance of the convention proceedings and taint the reputation of the city of Chicago. The demonstrators were denied a permit to assemble in Lincoln Park and were told to disband. When they refused the Chicago police tried to forcibly eject them from the park. When these efforts failed the police used tear gas and billy clubs. A riot resulted, and as news of the Chicago violence reached the nation, other groups went to Chicago to join the protestors. When the number of demonstrators reached 20,000, the NATIONAL GUARD was enlisted to quell the violence. Eight radical leaders emerged as the organizers of the demonstration movement: Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis, who had established the group known as Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS; Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, founders of the Youth International Party, or "Yippies"; Bobby Seale, leader of the BLACK PANTHER PARTY; David Dellinger, staunch opponent of the Vietnam War and renowned pacifist; and John Froines and Lee Weiner, two teachers.
In 1968 Congress enacted legislation prohibiting conspiracies to cross state boundaries with the intent of inciting a riot. The eight men were brought to trial at the Federal Court Building in Chicago in 1969 and were accused of breaking this new law.
The trial evoked a number of controversial issues. The purpose of the protest was to air the views of the participants against the Vietnam War. The blame for the ensuing riots, however, could not be clearly placed on the demonstrators or on the actions of the police to disband them. While the Constitution provides for the basic freedoms of speech, protest, and assemblage, the terms of the new law—particularly concerning the actual act of conspiring to riot—were not clearly defined in relation to these rights.
Federal district court judge Julius J. Hoffman was selected to try the case. The U.S. attorney for the prosecution for Illinois was Thomas Foran. A number of defense lawyers were retained, but the two most prominent were WILLIAM KUNSTLER and Leonard Weinglass. Armed protection was provided at the court building to discourage disturbances.
Judge Hoffman proved to be a difficult man. Four defense lawyers notified the judge by telegram that they had decided to withdraw from the case; Hoffman charged them with CONTEMPT of court for not informing him personally of their intentions. The charges were eventually dropped but not before protests from lawyers all over the nation were filed. Bobby Seale's lawyer became ill, and Seale asked for either a delay of his trial until his lawyer could participate or permission to defend himself. Hoffman denied both requests.
The prosecution began by stating three charges against the Chicago Eight: (1) they had persuaded people to travel to Chicago for the purpose of joining protest demonstrations;
(2) they had influenced their followers to defy law enforcement officials; and (3) they had encouraged a riot. The defense attorneys countered that the actions of the demonstrators were in accordance with the basic freedoms granted by the Constitution.
Police informants were called as witnesses for the prosecution. Bobby Seale asked to be allowed to cross-examine the witnesses, and again the argument flared between Seale and Hoffman as to Seale's rights to representation by counsel. The other defendants voiced agitation during the early days of the trial, but exchanges between Bobby Seale and Judge Hoffman were particularly vehement, and Hoffman had Seale handcuffed to a chair and gagged. Hoffman claimed that the court had the right to employ this tactic, but it was the first time it had been utilized during a trial of any consequence in the United States. Seale still found ways to interrupt the proceedings, and Hoffman declared a mistrial in Seale's case and imposed on Seale sentence of four years for contempt of court.
The seven remaining defendants and their lawyers became enraged; the trial became a shouting match between all involved, with insults being flung at the judge by the defendants. Hoffman began ruling in favor of motions presented by the prosecution and against those for the defense.
The trial came to a close on February 14, 1970. As the jury deliberated, Hoffman charged all the defendants and attorneys Kunstler and Weinglass with contempt of court and passed sentences ranging from 2 months 8 days, to 29 months 13 days. Kunstler, however, received the longest sentence of 4 years 13 days. Judge Hoffman also refused to permit bail.
The jury finally reached a verdict. The seven defendants were cleared of conspiracy charges, but five of them were found guilty of crossing state boundaries to incite a riot and were given prison sentences of five years and fined $5,000. Defendants Froines and Weiner were acquitted of all charges.
The Chicago Eight appealed to higher courts, which resulted in granting of bail, a reversal of all contempt charges—including those of the two lawyers—and a new trial for the convicted five. The proceedings of the new trial were private and lacked the sensationalism of the earlier hearings, and although the defendants were again found guilty, their sentences were suspended.