The Soledad Brothers were three African-American inmates charged with the murder of white prison guard John V. Mills at California's Soledad Prison on January 16, 1970. George Jackson, Fleeta Drumgoole and John Clutchette were said to have murdered Mills in retaliation for the shooting deaths of three black prisoners during a prison fight in the exercise yard three days prior by another guard, Opie G. Miller.
On January 13, 1970, 14 black inmates and 2 white inmates from the maximum-security section of Soledad Prison were released into a recreation yard for the first time in several months. The black prisoners were ordered to the far end of the yard, while the white prisoners remained near the center of the yard. Officer Opie G. Miller, an expert marksman armed with a rifle, watched over the inmates from a guard tower thirteen feet above the yard. A fist fight ensued and with no warning shot, Miller opened fire on the prisoners below. Three black inmates were killed in the shooting: W.L. Nolen and Cleveland Edwards died in the yard, while Alvin Miller died in the prison hospital a few hours later. White inmate Billy D. Harris was wounded in the groin by Miller's fourth shot, and ended up losing a testicle.
Following the incident, thirteen black prisoners began a hunger strike in the hopes of securing an investigation. On January 16, 1970, a Monterey County grand jury convened, then exonerated Miller in the deaths of Nolen, Edwards, and Miller with a ruling of "justifiable homicide". No black inmates were permitted to testify, including those who had been in the recreation yard during the shooting. In Soledad Prison, inmates heard the grand jury's ruling on the prison radio. Thirty minutes later, John V. Mills was found dying in another maximum-security wing of the prison, having been beaten and thrown from a third-floor tier to the television room below.
On February 14, 1970, after an investigation into Mills' death by prison officials, George Lester Jackson, Fleeta Drumgoole and John Wesley Clutchette were indicted by the Monterey County grand jury for first-degree murder.
Soledad Brothers Defense Committee
The Soledad Brothers Defense Committee was formed by Fay Stender to assist in publicizing the case and raising funds to defend Jackson, Drumgoole, and Clutchette. Among the wide variety of celebrities, writers, and political activists that supported the SBDC and their cause were Julian Bond, Kay Boyle, Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Noam Chomsky, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Tom Hayden, William Kunstler, Jessica Mitford, Linus Pauling, Pete Seeger, Benjamin Spock, and Angela Davis. In June 1970, California State Senator Mervyn Dymally and the California Legislative Black Caucus pursed an investigation of Soledad Prison and released a report that helped legitimize the Committee. By the middle of that month, Davis was leading the movement.
Jonathan Jackson's attempt to free the Soledad Brothers
On August 7, 1970, George Jackson's seventeen-year-old brother Jonathan Jackson held up a courtroom at the Marin County Civic Center, temporarily freed three San Quentin prisoners, and took Superior Court Judge Harold Haley, Deputy District Attorney Gary Thomas, and three female jurors hostage in a bid to secure the freedom of the "Soledad Brothers". Jackson, Haley, and prisoners William Christmas and James McClain were killed as they attempted to drive away from the courthouse. Haley died due to the discharge of a sawed-off shotgun that had been fastened to his neck with adhesive tape by the abductors. Thomas, prisoner Ruchell Magee, and one of the jurors were wounded.
Angela Davis, who purchased the guns used in the escape attempt, was later tried and acquitted of charges in connection with the escape.
San Quentin Six
On August 21, 1971, days before his trial in the guard's killing, the 29-year-old Jackson launched an uprising at San Quentin with a 9 mm pistol. Gun in hand, he released an entire floor of prisoners from the maximum-security wing, crying, "This is it, gentlemen, the Dragon has come!" In the ensuing melee, three guards were killed, as were two prisoners suspected of being snitches, before George Jackson was killed by a guard.
In San Francisco, proceedings were held in the Department 21 courtroom on the third floor of the Hall of Justice, the same courtroom in which Ruchell Magee would later be tried on charges related to the murder of Judge Haley. Spectators, including the press, were separated from the proceedings by a $15,000 floor-to-ceiling barrier constructed of metal, wood, and bullet-proof glass.[nb 1] On March 27, 1972, the two surviving Soledad Brothers—Clutchette and Drumgoole—were acquitted by a San Francisco jury of the original charges of murdering a prison guard.
- The barrier was also reported to be soundproof, thereby requiring a public address system so that spectators could hear the proceedings.
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- "Acquit Soledad Brothers", Pacific Stars and Stripes, March 29, 1972, p1