It was the kind of thing that you would see dramatized on television or in a movie. Only it was not dramatic irony, it was one of the most infamous criminal prosecutions in Chicago history. The defendants included notable left-wing celebrities such as Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panthers Party. He and the other defendants were accused of inciting riots during the Democratic National Convention. As soon as the case began, it started heading off the rails in a hurry.
Threatening Letters to Jurors
Hoffman is notable because he was a famous left-wing activist who was known for the civil rights movement and for writing a book called Steal This Book which was heavily anti-capitalist.
The trial stalled when one of the jurors received a threatening letter. The defense accused the government of sending the letter to taint the jury pool, while the prosecution accused the defendants of intimidation. Judge Julius Hoffman suspended proceedings to question the juror directly and told attorneys to keep the information to themselves. However, the defense called a press conference in which they openly accused the government of a plot to taint the panel. The jurors were sequestered for the rest of the five-month trial.
The trial was further plagued by throngs of supporters for Hoffman and his defendants entering the courtroom and being completely uninhibited by the orderly and austere nature of the environment. One prosecutor recalled that they lined up every day to get in. They would shout, scream obscenities, and try to disrupt the proceedings. When things got out of hand, an officer would have to remove the offender who would often fight back.
At one point, the judge ordered Bobby Seale bound and gagged after he appeared to lunge at the lead prosecutor. The prosecutors believed that Seale had orchestrated the pushback to make it look like the proceedings were overtly racist. Seale was removed from the proceedings and given four years for criminal contempt, but that sentence would be later vacated, if not the conviction. After, the state chose not to retry him on conspiracy to incite a riot.
All seven defendants were acquitted of conspiracy charges. However, Hoffman and five others were convicted of crossing state lines to incite a riot, but those convictions alongside the sentences for contempt were overturned on appeal.
The Role the Media Played
A new Netflix film dramatizes the Chicago 7 Trial, but prosecutors say that the trial was being dramatized in the press long before Hollywood took a stab at it. Every night, said the lead prosecutor, he would listen to the news about how the defendants were good caring people who wanted to fight a racist and unjust system. Meanwhile, they were doing everything in their power to disrupt that system, and prosecutors believe that the media helped the defendants turn the trial into a circus that ultimately destroyed their chances at getting convictions.
Talk to a Chicago Criminal Defense Attorney
If you are facing charges related to protesting, call David Freidberg today at (312) 560-7100. These charges are quite likely to be federal charges, so you will need a defense attorney skilled at handling federal cases. Call us today to learn more about how we can help.