How famed activist Angela Davis narrowly escaped the death penalty in 1972

Elikem M. Aflakpui June 04, 2019
Credit: Wiki CC

In October 1970, American political activist Angela Davis was arrested after a warrant was issued on the charges of aggravated kidnapping and first-degree murder in the death of Judge Harold Haley. However, after 16 months in prison and 4 months of trial proceedings, on June 4, 1972, an all-white jury acquitted her of all the charges.

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Angela Davis was arrested in New York City in connection with a shootout that occurred on August 7, 1970 in a courthouse in San Rafael, California. She was accused of aiding and abetting by supplying weapons to Jonathan Jackson, who burst into the courtroom in a bid to free inmates on trial and take hostages whom he hoped to exchange for his brother George, a black radical imprisoned at San Quentin Prison.

In the subsequent shoot-out with police, Jonathan Jackson was killed along with Superior Court Judge Harold Haley and two inmates. Davis was a known supporter of the Soledad Brothers, three inmates who were on trial that day for killing a prison guard at Soledad Prison.

According to California laws, all persons concerned in the commission of a crime, whether they directly commit the act constituting the offence or not, are principals in the crime. Angela Davis had purchased several of the firearms Jackson used in the attack including the shotgun used to shoot Judge Haley, which she bought at a San Francisco pawn shop two days before the incident. She was also found to have been corresponding with one of the inmates involved.

Before her arrest in 1970, Davis fled California. The Federal Bureau of Investigation listed her on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitive List. Angela Davis was the third woman to be listed. President Richard Nixon labelled her a “dangerous terrorist” for her involvement with the case.

Her trial began in March 1972 and drew international attention because of the weakness of the prosecution’s case and obvious political nature of the proceedings.

Angela Davis was represented by trial lawyer Leo Branton Jr., who hired psychologists to help the defense determine who in the jury pool might favour their arguments, a technique that has since become more common. He also hired experts to discredit the reliability of eyewitness accounts.

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Davis was segregated from other prisoners, in solitary confinement, at the Women’s Detention Center but with the help of her legal team, she obtained a federal court order to get out of the segregated area.

16 months after her imprisonment, Davis was released on bail from county jail. Her bail charge of $100,000 was paid by a dairy farmer from Fresno, California, Rodger McAfee with the help of Steve Sparacino, a wealthy business owner. The United Presbyterian Church covered some of her legal defense expenses.

Thousands of people organized a movement to gain Davis’ release throughout the United States. By February 1971, more than 200 local committees in the United States and 67 in foreign countries worked to free Davis from prison. Peace activism couple John Lennon and Yoko Ono contributed to this campaign with the song titled Angela.

The trial was moved to Santa Clara County after Davis’ legal team won another motion. This time, for a change of venue. On June 4, 1972, after 13 hours of deliberations, the all-white jury returned a verdict of not guilty. According to the jury, the fact that she owned the guns used in the crime was judged insufficient to establish her role in the plot.

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Angela Yvonne Davis is a black militant, a former philosophy professor at the University of California, and self-proclaimed communist. She is also a former director of the university’s Feminist Studies Department.

She emerged as a prominent counterculture activist in the 1960s working with the Communist Party USA, of which she was a member until 1991, and was involved in the Black Panther Party during the Civil Rights Movement. She co-founded Critical Resistance, an organization working to abolish the prison–industrial complex.

She continues her activism work till date and recently sent words of support to Sudanese protestors and activists whose efforts contributed to the ousting of ex-president Omar al-Bashir who had been in power for 30 years.

Last Edited by:Victor Ativie Updated: August 10, 2020


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