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The last week of August 1968, the Democratic party held its national convention in Chicago, Illinois. During the week of the convention, activists gathered in and around Chicago’s Grant Park for speeches, rallies, films, protests, and other activities, many of which focused on opposing the role of the U.S. in the war in Vietnam. The Democratic Party’s convention headquarters were in the Conrad Hilton Hotel, which overlooked Grant Park. A wide variety of activist groups were represented at the park gatherings – including the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (“MOBE”), the Youth International Party (“Yippie”), and Students for a Democratic Society (“SDS”) – among many others.
As the week progressed, the crowd at Grant Park grew to many thousands in size, and violent confrontations erupted between the demonstrators and the Chicago police officers, U.S. Army soldiers, and the Illinois National Guard, whose presence had been requested by Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. Armed with clubs and tear gas, law enforcement clashed with demonstrators as the nation looked on. Daley and his administration placed blame for the violence on “outside agitators” who had traveled to Chicago for a hostile confrontation.
Approximately 640 people were arrested in connection with the gathering. Among them were known political activists, including
Abbot "Abbie" Hoffman, 29, and
Jerry Rubin, 30 (co-founders of the Yippies);
Rennard "Rennie" Davis, 28, and David Dellinger, 52 (organizers with MOBE);
Thomas Hayden, 28 (co-founder of SDS); Bobby Seale (Chairman of the Black Panther Party, who had traveled to Grant Park to fill in as a speaker); John Froines, 29 (Professor at University of Oregon); and Lee Weiner, 28 (sociology graduate student and research assistant at Northwestern University). These eight men were all charged with conspiracy. Hoffman, Rubin, Davis, Dellinger, Hayden and Seale were also charged with making speeches for the purpose of inciting riots, after having crossed state lines for this purpose, in violation of the 1968 federal Anti-Riot Act. Froines and Weiner were charged with providing instruction on the use of an incendiary device in violation of a different federal statute.
The President’s Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence ordered an investigation into the causes of the violence in Chicago. On December 1, 1968, the committee released its findings, entitled “Rights in Conflict” and referred to as the Walker Report, after its chair, Daniel Walker. The report stated that “the nature of the response was unrestrained and indiscriminate police violence on many occasions, particularly at night. That violence was made all the more shocking by the fact that it was often inflicted upon persons who had broken no law, disobeyed no order, made no threat.” Criminal charges were brought against some members of law enforcement in connection with the violence, but all were ultimately acquitted.
The defendants’ jury trial began September 24, 1969, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, with Judge Julius Hoffman (no relation) presiding. U.S. Attorney Thomas A. Foran and Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard G. Schultz prosecuted the case. Prominent civil rights attorneys William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass represented the defendants other than Seale. Seale’s usual attorney, Charles Garry, was undergoing surgery in California and could not be present. Garry’s request to postpone the trial had been denied. In the absence of Garry, Seale refused representation by Kunstler and Weinglass; he said he would rather represent himself. However, Judge Hoffman refused Seale’s requests to represent himself and insisted that Kunstler was Seale’s attorney.
From the beginning, the tone of the trial was raucous, with provocative conduct from the defendants and courtroom spectators and open animosity for the defense from Judge Hoffman. There were frequent hostile exchanges between the defendants and Judge Hoffman. In one of many dramatic displays, Rubin and Abbie Hoffman arrived wearing judicial robes, which they then removed and stomped on. The judge charged the defendants and their attorneys with over 150 counts of contempt by the end of the trial.
After several conflicts between Seale and Judge Hoffman, the judge ordered two U.S. marshals to gag and bind Seale to his courtroom seat. This treatment of Seale continued until November 3, when the judge allowed him to be unshackled and ungagged on the condition that he sit quietly in the courtroom. Seale requested to cross-examine several witnesses on the basis that he was representing himself, but the judge denied these requests, refusing to acknowledge that Seale was acting as his own attorney. On November 5, 1969, Judge Hoffman declared a mistrial for Seale, and sentenced him to four years in prison on 16 contempt charges. He set April 23, 1970 as the new trial date for Seale and proceeded with the trial for the other seven defendants. The group of defendants, referred to as the “Chicago Eight,” became the “Chicago Seven.” The government ultimately did not retry Seale on these charges.
The prosecution presented over 50 witnesses, including undercover police officers who testified that they had heard the defendants making statements encouraging violent activities.
The defense argued that the intent of the defendants was to peacefully gather and demonstrate – and not to incite violence. They presented evidence of their efforts to obtain permits and their attempts to negotiate with Chicago officials about their plans. The defense claimed that city representatives were unwilling to work with them or to issue the necessary permits for the demonstrations to proceed as planned, and that this refusal to cooperate on the part of the city officials and the aggressive actions on the part of the police caused the violence. Witnesses testified to support their claims that Davis and others representing the activist groups had tried many times without success to speak with city officials about obtaining permits. Davis and Abbie Hoffman testified for the defense.
On February 14, 1970, while the jury deliberated, Judge Hoffman cited the seven defendants, as well as Kunstler and Weinglass, for over 150 counts of contempt – and each received a prison sentence, ranging from less than three months to more than four years. On February 18, 1970, after a nearly five-month-long trial, the jury acquitted the defendants on the conspiracy charges. However, Hoffman, Dellinger, Davis, Hayden, and Rubin were convicted of violating the Anti-riot Act, with the jury finding they had crossed state lines with the intent to incite riot. Each was sentenced to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Froines and Weiner were acquitted of all charges.
On November 21, 1972, the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the convictions for violations of the Anti-riot Act. The Court found that “the district judge’s deprecatory and often antagonistic attitude toward the defense [was] evident in the record from the very beginning. It appears in remarks and actions both in the presence and absence of the jury.”
The Court of Appeals found reversible error in the fact that Judge Hoffman had communications with the jurors during deliberations without informing the defense and without recording the communications. The Seventh Circuit also found error in the district court’s refusal to allow testimony from the defense’s expert witnesses on the topic of riot control and crowd dynamics.
Additionally, the Court of Appeals found that the district court erred in refusing to permit former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark to testify that he had called Mayor Daley the month before the Democratic National Convention to urge Daley to discuss permits with activist groups. The Seventh Circuit found that Clark’s testimony could have “been significant in that it required a telephone call from the Attorney General of the United States to move the mayor into negotiations with these groups. It would, at least, have added a dimension to the defense’s version of the facts, and therefore it should not have been excluded.”
The Court also emphasized the many derogatory comments made by the judge against the defense in the presence of the jury and inappropriate remarks by the U.S. attorney, finding that the conduct of the judge and prosecutor would have required reversal if the case was not already reversed on other grounds.
On January 4, 1973, Attorney General Richard G. Kleindienst and U.S. Attorney James R. Thompson announced the dismissal of the riot charges against all the defendants who had been convicted in the trial.
The defendants and their attorneys appealed their contempt convictions arising from the trial. The Court of Appeals reversed the contempt convictions on May 11, 1972 and dismissed many of the charges. The court ordered a new trial for the remaining 52 contempt charges. In 1973, the defendants had their second trial for these contempt charges. Kunstler and Weinglass were again tried alongside them. This bench trial took place before federal Judge Edward T. Gignoux. Hoffman, Dellinger, Rubin, and Kunstler were found guilty of a total of 13 of the 52 charges on December 4, 1973. Hayden, Davis, Froines, Weiner, and Weinglass were acquitted on all the contempt charges. In September 1974, the contempt convictions of Hoffman, Dellinger, Rubin, and Kunstler were upheld on appeal.
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.