Marin County courthouse incident
The Marin County courthouse incident was an event which occurred on August 7, 1970, when 17-year-old Jonathan Jackson attempted to negotiate the freedom of the Soledad Brothers (which included his older brother George) by kidnapping Superior Court judge Harold Haley from the Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael, California. The resulting shootout left four men dead, including both Jackson and Judge Haley. Two others were wounded. The event received intense media coverage, as did the subsequent manhunt and trial of Angela Davis, an ousted assistant professor from UCLA with connections to George and Jonathan Jackson, and the Black Panthers. Davis owned the weapons used in the incident.
Petition by W. L. Nolen
In the summer of 1969, W.L. Nolen, a twenty-year-old inmate at Soledad prison who had been convicted in 1963 for robbery, began circulating a petition to file a lawsuit against the prison's superintendent, Cletus J. Fitzharris, charging that guards and officials at the facility knew of "existing social and racial conflicts" and that they had been seeking to excite them through "direct harassment and in ways not actionable in court", including the filing of false disciplinary reports and intentionally leaving black inmates' cells unlocked to put them in danger of assault.
He stated further that officials were "willfully creating and maintaining situations that creates and poses dangers [sic] to the plaintiff [himself]" and that he "feared for his life."
Shootings on January 13, 1970
On January 13, 1970, three black prisoners were shot dead at Soledad by corrections officer Opie G. Miller. Nolen was among the slain, along with Cleveland Edwards, then 21, who had been convicted in 1967 of assaulting a police officer, and Alvin Miller, then 23, who had been convicted of robbery. According to Ellsworth Ferguson, an administrative assistant to Fitzharris at the time, a fight began during a scheduled exercise period for 15 inmates from the maximum security wing of the prison. During the conflict, two white inmates among the group were beaten to the ground and Miller was reportedly "fearful that several might be seriously hurt or killed." Officials later stated that it was "surmised" that the fight was racial in nature.
Officer Miller, an expert marksman, shouted and blew a whistle but gave no warning shot before firing on Nolen, Edwards and Alvin Miller. White inmate Billy D. Harris, then 23, who was serving time for assault and perjury, was injured and lost one of his testicles, but did not die.
According to statements made by inmates, there had been an intentional mixing of white prisoners who were known racists and black prisoners in the yard and that some manner of fight had been anticipated. The congregation of the 15 men in the prison yard had been the first integrated exercise period in several months. The death of a black inmate, Clarence Causey, who had been stabbed to death in 1968, had left racial tensions running high, and for several months prior to January 13, inmates had only been allowed exercise in the yard one at a time.
Furthermore, inmates claimed that the guards had intentionally barred them from taking the wounded prisoners to the hospital, allowing the three shooting victims to bleed out for nearly twenty minutes before they were finally taken to receive medical aid. Thomas Meneweather, a black inmate who was present for the shootings and reportedly attempted to carry Alvin Miller inside, stated, "I started to walk toward the door through which we had entered the yard but the tower guard pointed the gun at me and shook his head. Then I started forward with tears in my eyes, expecting to be shot down every minute, but the tower guard told me, 'That's far enough.'" The next day, 13 black inmates housed in the prison began a hunger strike, demanding a federal investigation of Officer Miller's actions, in addition to requesting segregated facilities and "psychiatric examinations by a black psychiatrist for all gun tower guards."
Opie Miller was exonerated of the deaths of prisoners a few days later by an all-white Monterey County grand jury. None of the black inmates present for the shootings were asked to testify.
Murder of John Vincent Mills
On January 17, 1970, four days after the shootings, prison guard John Vincent Mills (aged 26), was beaten, dragged up three flights of stairs and tossed to his death. A note found beside his body read "One down, two to go."
Three black inmates were charged with this murder and were transferred to San Quentin to await trial. The three defendants, Fleeta Drumgo, John Clutchette and George Jackson, eventually came to be known as the "Soledad Brothers". Jackson was known at the time to be a political activist and writer, and he and Nolen had worked together in 1966 to found the prison gang the Black Guerrilla Family, a black Marxist group targeting what it believed to be the white racist infrastructure of the prison system.
Escalating racial violence
Following the January 13 shootings and the death of John Mills, racial tensions grew increasingly violent at Soledad. On March 16, 1970, white guards William Monagan and Wallace Coffman were held hostage for approximately forty-five minutes by five inmates before tear gas was deployed to free them. The incident was reported in The Bulletin.
On July 23, 1970, a white guard, William H. Shull, age 40, was found stabbed to death in a shed for exercise equipment. Forty different wounds were found on his body. Six days later, the body of a white convicted robber, Roy William Turner, aged twenty-two, was found shoved under his prison cell cot.
Events of August 7, 1970
In 1970, fired UCLA professor Angela Davis considered a prison inmate named George Jackson to be her "lifetime" husband, though they were never legally married. George Jackson was a Black Panther and in a subset of the Black Panthers called the Soledad Brothers. A plan was hatched to get Jackson out of prison by kidnapping persons during the trial of another Black Panther named James McClain. Those to be held hostage - including the judge, deputy district attorney, and jurors - would be traded for Jackson's freedom. McClain was being tried in the Marin County Hall of Justice. Judge Haley was presiding over the trial of McClain who was accused of stabbing a prison guard while serving a sentence for burglary.
Davis wrote to George Jackson: “All my life's efforts have gone in one direction – Free George Jackson. Free the Soledad Brothers. Man I have gotten into a lot of trouble but I don't give a damn. I love you…. That is all that matters. Liberation by whatever means necessary. If I am serious about my love for you... I should be ready to go all the way. I am. I love you. Until victory, Angela.”
The person chosen to effectuate the kidnapping was George's younger brother Jonathan. In the week preceding the kidnapping, Angela Davis and Jonathan Jackson spent much time together, visiting George, buying things, and cashing checks. In the days before the kidnapping, Davis and Jonathan Jackson drove to Mexico, Santa Cruz, Oakland, San Jose, San Francisco, and San Rafael. Two days before the kidnapping, Davis and Jonathan Jackson bought a shotgun from a pawn shop in San Francisco. After Davis paid for the shotgun, the barrel of the shotgun was sawed off so as to be concealable.
On the day before the kidnapping, Davis and Jonathan Jackson were in a rented yellow utility van at the Marin Courthouse. Jonathan went into the courtroom where James McClain was on trial. He was wearing a long buttoned-up raincoat, despite the heat and lack of rain. The van had troubles running, so Jonathan and Davis drove to a gas station down the street from the courthouse to get the van repaired.
On August 7, 1970, a heavily armed Jonathan Jackson returned to the courthouse in the yellow van. He entered the courtroom again wearing the long raincoat, and brought three guns registered to Angela Davis into the Hall of Justice.
Jackson sat among the spectators for a few minutes before opening his satchel, drawing a pistol and throwing it to Black Panther defendant McClain. Jackson then produced a carbine from his raincoat as McClain held the pistol against Judge Haley's head. Jackson was reported as saying "Freeze. Just freeze." He then told court officials, attorneys and jurors to lie on the floor while another San Quentin inmate, Ruchell Magee, who was to have witnessed at McClain's trial, went to free three other testifying prisoners from their holding cell. A couple with a baby was also ordered into the judge's chambers.
After being freed by Magee, a fourth man, Black Panther William A. Christmas, joined the other three kidnappers. Haley was forced at gunpoint to call the sheriff Louis P. Montarnos, in the hopes of convincing the police to refrain from intervening. Road flares, which were used to simulate sticks of dynamite, were held against Judge Haley's neck before being replaced with a sawed-off shotgun which was fastened under his chin with adhesive tape. The kidnappers, after some debate, then secured four other hostages whom they bound with piano wire: Deputy District Attorney Gary Thomas and jurors Maria Elena Graham, Doris Whitmer, and Joyce Rodoni.
The four kidnappers and five hostages then moved into the corridor of the courthouse, which at this point had become crowded with responding police who had been summoned by a bailiff. No action was taken against them at this point. Around this time, Jim Kean, a photographer for the San Rafael Independent Journal, arrived at the building after he had heard news of the incident from police radio in his car. He stepped off an elevator directly adjacent to the hostages and kidnappers, and was reportedly told by one of them "You take all the pictures you want. We are the revolutionaries." Kean and his colleague Roger Bockrath took a series of photographs of the group, apparently after some brief discussion as to whether the two journalists should be added to the ranks of the hostages.
The group then entered the elevator, informing the police that "[they wanted] the Soledad brothers freed by 12:30 today." When the hostages were forced out onto the sidewalk in front of the Hall of Justice, Judge Haley asked where they were being taken. He was told they were being taken to the airport where they would get a plane. The kidnappers then forced the hostages into a rented Ford panel truck which they began to drive towards an exit leading to the U.S. 101 freeway.
The police had set up a road block outside of the civic center in anticipation of the group leaving. As Jonathan Jackson drove the hostages and three convicts away from the courthouse, front passenger McClain shot at the police stationed in the parking lot. The police shot back. Judge Haley was killed by the discharge of the shotgun which had been taped to his neck. Hostage Deputy District Attorney Gary Thomas grabbed a gun from Jonathan Jackson and began shooting at the kidnappers. A shooting melee ensued, in which three Black Panthers were killed. The only Black Panther abductor to survive was Ruchell Magee. Prosecutor Thomas was paralyzed for life. Juror Graham suffered a bullet wound to her arm.
Following the events of August 7, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Angela Davis. She became a fugitive and fled California. She was secreted to Chicago to meet up with fellow Communist leader David Poindexter, Jr., who took her to Miami, Florida. In an effort to hide from authorities, Davis used false identification, cut off her notorious afro, wore a wig, plucked her eyebrows, wore makeup, and donned business eyeglasses. On October 13, 1970, FBI agents found her at the Howard Johnson Motor Lodge in New York City. President Richard M. Nixon congratulated the FBI on its "capture of the dangerous terrorist, Angela Davis".
Davis was charged as an accomplice to conspiracy, kidnapping, and homicide. In 1972, she was tried and found not guilty on all counts. Ruchell Magee pled guilty to the charge of aggravated kidnapping for his part in the assault. In return for his plea, the Attorney General asked the Court to dismiss the charge of murder (of Judge Harold Haley). Magee later attempted unsuccessfully to withdraw his plea, and was sentenced in 1975 to life in prison. He is currently imprisoned in Corcoran State Prison and has lost numerous bids for parole.
On October 8, 1970, the Marin County Courthouse was bombed. A group known as the Weathermen later claimed responsibility for the action, which was carried out in retaliation for the killing of Jackson and the other abductors.
In 1971, three days before he was to go on trial for the Mills murder, George Jackson was fatally shot in the prison yard of San Quentin during a riotous escape attempt. Officials claim that Jackson had smuggled a 9mm pistol into the prison and he and nearly two dozen other prisoners were attempting to escape. During the conflict, three corrections officers and two other inmates were killed. Six of the inmates (known as the San Quentin Six) were later tried for their participation.
Susie Edwards, Perry and Sadie Miller, and O.C. and Addie Nolen, the parents of Cleveland Edwards, Alvin Miller and W.L. Nolen, respectively, eventually filed a $1.2 million dollar damage suit against Opie G. Miller for the deaths of their sons.
- San Quentin Trials (Accessed 17 October 2005)
- Text of decision in Magee v. Superior Court
- Photographs of the Marin Court House event taken by news photographers Jim Kean and Roger Bockrath, showing Haley with a shotgun taped his neck
- Marin Civic Center shooting Jim Kean and Roger Bockrath Photographs
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