The Black Panther Party was a political group formed by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966 in Oakland, California. Previously, they had been named the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, advocating to arm black citizens and fight back against police brutality. In 1967, Newton was charged with the first-degree murder of Officer John Frey, the felonious assault of Officer Herbert Heanes, and the kidnapping of Dell Ross. He went to trial facing the death penalty, with many people protesting for his freedom, shouting “Free Huey!”
On October 28, 1967, an altercation occurred between Black Panther members Huey P. Newton and Gene McKinney and two police officers, Heanes and Frey. The two officers stopped Newton and McKinney’s car, and a dispute broke out, leaving Heanes and Newton with bullet wounds and Frey dead. Newton and McKinney flagged down a car, Dell Ross’ car, to take them to the hospital, where Newton was later found and arrested.
The Huey Newton trial began on July 15, 1968 and ended on September 8, 1968, with a verdict of guilty for voluntary manslaughter, not guilty of felonious assault, and a dismissal of the kidnapping charges. Newton was sentenced for two to fifteen years. The kidnapping charge was dismissed because the man who was supposedly kidnapped, Ross, had previously told the grand jury that Newton and another man (McKinney had not yet been identified) held him at gunpoint to drive them to the hospital, but in the trial, he refused to talk, and a taped conversation was played of him admitting he lied about being held at gunpoint.
Another witness, a black bus driver named Henry Grier, claimed to have seen the altercation in the headlights of the bus and that he saw Newton draw a gun from his jacket and shoot Frey repeatedly. However, Charles Garry, Newton’s defense attorney, proved that there was no way Newton was concealing a weapon in the jacket he was wearing the night he was arrested. Newton’s defense was that he had already been shot and was unconscious when Frey was killed.
Another factor in dispute was Newton’s probation. The prosecution claimed that he was a convicted felon on probation for a 1964 assault, but Newton argued that his probation had ended and it was only for a misdemeanor. His probation officer could not remember the date the probation was supposed to end, leaving that issue unresolved. Several black witnesses also claimed that Frey was very racist and known for being physically and verbally abusive towards the black members of society.
Garry brought McKinney to the trial where he refused to make a statement, causing the judge to put him in jail for contempt of court. However, this allowed Garry to show the jury that there was reasonable doubt about Newton being the one who fired the gun killing Frey, as it may have been McKinney. Eventually, the jury came to the decision that Newton was only guilty of the voluntary manslaughter of Frey, and he was acquitted of assaulting Officer Heanes. Two years later, one of his defense attorneys, Edward Keating, wrote a book about the trial, called Free Huey! The True Story of the Trial of Huey P. Newton for Murder. Newton was tried twice more in 1971, both ending in mistrials, before his case was dismissed.
A very important proceeding in this trial was the use of voir dire by the defense attorney, Garry. Voir dire is defined as “a preliminary examination of a witness or a juror by a judge or counsel.” Garry claimed that the jury could not be partial if they were not truly among Newton’s peers. Before he resorted to voir dire, he challenged “that the use of voter registration lists as the basis of selection of jurors resulted in a master panel which was not representative because of the disproportionate exclusion and under-representation of racial minorities and the poor” (Taylor, 823). When this did not work, he used voir dire in an attempt to produce a fair jury of Newton’s peers. He defined peers as “men and women who came from the same groups he did: economic, social, environmental, age, language, and political groups, with the same behavioral background and understanding” (Garry, xix). He asked the jurors many questions relating to their attitudes toward police, black militancy, the Black Panther Party, Vietnam War, etc. Finally, the prosecution and defense determined the jury: seven white women, four white men, and one black man.
Huey P. Newton Interviewed in Jail (1968)
Implications and Memory:
Charles Garry’s use of voir dire set a precedent for choosing jurors in more racially and politically sensitive trials. In a review of a book by Ann Fagan Ginger on Garry’s use of voir dire to minimize racism in jury trials, in 1970, Leigh Taylor discusses the underlying prejudices white people have, even if they claim to be unbiased. He writes, “Few white Americans admit racial prejudice, for it is now socially unacceptable to appear biased. .. the point is that racial bias has become hidden within many whites and is often subtle… white Americans must come to terms with their internal racism; first by acknowledging its presence and then by working and making allowances to overcome it” (824-5). These view on internal racism are still prevalent fifty years later, as many Americans will claim they are not racist, but they have yet to acknowledge the internalized racism that they have due to the way modern society is structured.
“White Americans must come to terms with their internal racism; first by acknowledging its presence and then by working and making allowances to overcome it.”
-Leigh H. Taylor
Relating to this, modern trials are still sometimes unfair to many minority groups due to racial biases in the jurors, lawyers, and judges. In a study done on death sentencing in relation to jurors’ race by William Bowers, race and gender had significant effects on decisions about capital sentencing. Bowers found that “the presence of five or more white male jurors dramatically increased the likelihood of a death sentence in B/W cases … having a black male on the jury substantially reduced the likelihood of a death sentence in B/W cases” (195). This trial is just one example of a narrativization of this common phenomena of racial bias in juries. It also shows how memory can be partial because history often forgets the story told by the losing party in trials, whether the jury made an unbiased decision or not.
Fifty years after the trial of one of the founders of the Black Panther Party came the release of the Marvel film Black Panther. While it is a coincidence that these two have the same name—both were formed in 1966— the power of the movie has led people to call for the release of incarcerated former members of the Black Panther Party. According to Sekou Odinga, a former Black Panther Party member who was in prison for 33 years and released in 2014, “This is an opportunity to remind people of the real heroes of the Black Panthers and the conditions they live in today.” The movie even has scenes in Oakland, California, as an homage to the birthplace of the Black Panther Party. The Black Lives Matter movement is often compared to the Black Panther Party, showing how memory can be processual and usable, as this movement’s ideals have been continued on fifty years later, in slightly different ways and with a different name. Both movements were frustrated with police brutality, which could be seen in the Black Panther Party’s urge for black people to arm themselves against aggressive, racist police officers and in the Newton trial over the death of a racist police officer.
By Olivia Glass
Taylor, Leigh H.“Ginger (Ed.): Minimizing Racism in Jury Trials.” DePaul Law Review, vol. 19, no. 4, 1970, pp. 821-828, http://via.library.depaul.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3043&context=law-review
Garry, Charles. “Attacking Racism in Court Before Trial,” in Minimizing Racism in Jury Trials, xix (A. Ginger ed, 1969).
Levin, Sam. “Black Panther film fuels calls for release of jailed political activists.” The Guardian, 16 Feb. 2018, www.theguardian.com/film/2018/feb/16/black-panther-party-marvel-film-jail
Bowers, William J.; Steiner, Benjamin D.; Sandys, Marla. “Death Sentencing in Black and White: An Empirical Analysis of the Role of Jurors’ Race and Jury Racial Composition,” University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law vol. 3, no. 1 (February 2001): pp. 195.
“Black Panther poster references iconic Huey P. Newton picture.” Afropunk, 12 June, 2017, http://afropunk.com/2017/06/black-panther-poster-references-iconic-huey-p-newton-picture/
Keating, Edward. Free Huey! The True Story of the Trial of Huey P. Newton for Murder. Ramparts Press; First Edition edition. 1 Jan, 1971.
“Huey P. Newton Interviewed In Jail (1968).” YouTube, uploaded by Ravenna Lilith, 26 May 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=0_bDYXtnYKs