Courant File Photo
April 28, 2014
In 1969, at the height of deep civil unrest in the country, members of the Black Panther Party concluded that they had been betrayed by one of their own.
Alex Rackley, just 19 years old, was kidnapped by fellow Panthers and tortured for days at the Panthers' New Haven headquarters on Orchard Street. Beaten with sticks and doused with boiling water, he ultimately confessed, was given a bogus tape-recorded trial and driven to Middlefield where he was shot dead and dumped in the Coginchaug River.
Several Panthers were arrested in the killing, but New Haven State's Attorney Arnold Markle set his sights higher, charging Panther National Chairman Bobby Seale with ordering Rackley's killing.
With widespread distrust of law enforcement, Seale's prosecution attracted thousands of demonstrators to the New Haven Green, many predicting that Seale -- and other Panthers implicated in the case -- would be railroaded by a racist legal system. But it wasn't only counter-culture activists who had little faith in the justice system. As president of Yale University, Kingman Brewster said at the time he was "skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the U.S."
Seale's trial began in November 1970, with co-defendant Ericka Huggins, founder of the Panthers' New Haven chapter. Jury selection took 17 weeks, with more than 1,000 interviewed to select 12 regular jurors and two alternates.
Testimony in the case, inside a courtroom specially outfitted with bulletproof glass on the windows, took only half as long. A Black Panther who took part in killing Rackley said he acted on Seale's order. The defense said that claim alone was too thin to support a conviction. Huggins can be heard on tape, orchestrating Rackley's "trial" -- but claimed in court that she was scared and simply mimicked what she was told to do.
Jurors deliberated 25 hours over six days before declaring they were hopelessly deadlocked, leading Superior Court Judge Harold M. Mulvey to declare a mistrial.
Markle, the prosecutor immediately prepared for a retrial. "Absolutely," he replied when asked if he would prosecute again. "I did my job. I'll do it again."
But the next day, Mulvey stunned the courtroom.
"The state has put its best foot forward in presenting its effort to prove its case against these defendants. They have failed to convince a jury of their guilt," Mulvey said at the end of a brief address. "With the massive publicity attendant upon the trial just completed, I find it impossible to believe that an unbiased jury could be selected without super-human efforts, efforts which this court, the state and these defendants should not be called upon to make or to endure.
"The motion to dismiss is granted in each case, and the prisoners are discharged forthwith."
Markle was furious, Panther supporters wept openly, and a dazed Ericka Huggins, who had spent the past two years behind bars, walked outside to the cheers of hundreds of demonstrators on the Green. Seale, who owed time on a contempt-of-court conviction in Illinois, headed back to his jail cell.
IMAGE CAPTION: Bobby Seale leaves Montville for his trial on March 18, 1971.