Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Civil Liberties and the 1981 Brink's Case: A 1991 `Downtown' Inquiry--Part 2

Controversy still exists about the events in Rockland County on Oct. 20, 1981, prior to the arrests of Sam Brown, Boudin, Clark and Gilbert:

1. There is disagreement about what actually happened in the Nanuet Shopping Mall when the Brink’s truck was robbed. In its Oct. 21, 1981 edition, the New York Times reported that then-Rockland County D.A. Kenneth Gribetz “told a news conference at midnight that four of the robbers jumped out of a red van parked near an entrance to the huge two-story shopping complex and began shooting. `They just opened fire on them,’ he said.” Yet in 1985, Gilbert stated: “The story of the combatants charging out shooting at the Brink’s guard is a pure propaganda creation.” And in The Big Dance, John Castellucci wrote that: “Eyewitness accounts of what happened during the robbery are unreliable.”

2. There is disagreement about whether Kathy Boudin shouted at the slain policeman, Sgt. O’Grady: “Tell him to put the gun back,” after Ptl. Brian Lennon pointed a shotgun at the windshield of the U-Haul truck at the Thruway entrance and two other police cars pulled in behind the U-Haul. According to Castellucci’s book, Boudin denies telling Sgt. O’Grady that Ptl. Lennon should “put the gun back” and Ptl. Lennon left out any reference to Boudin’s alleged pre-shootout demand in “both his handwritten account and supplementary investigation report,” yet “testified about it when he took the witness stand during preliminary hearings in the state case in New City, New York, on Oct. 5, 1982.”

3. There is disagreement about whether Boudin was already in police custody prior to the exchange of gunfire at the Thruway entrance and whether she should really be held legally accountable for the deaths of the policemen who were killed after her detention. In an April 20, 1984 letter to Judge Ritter, one of Boudin’s attorneys, Leonard Weinglass, wrote that “The evidence clearly supports the contention that Ms. Boudin was in custody at the time of the shooting.”

4. There is also disagreement about what actually happened during the exchange of gunfire at the Thruway entrance. The Big Dance states that” Patrolman Brian J. Lennon and Detective Arthur G. Keenan were hypnotized to jog their memories about what happened during the shootout” and that Keenan incorrectly identified Sam Brown as the person who shot the two slain policemen in his Oct. 23, 1981 preliminary hearing testimony. Castellucci also states in his book that witness Norma Hill “at first gave an account of the shoot-out radically different from the one she would give when she testified” and “admitted picking the wrong man out of the hospital lineup during a pretrial hearing on October 18, 1982.”

Although the pro-Establishment reporter Castellucci concedes that “neither Boudin, nor Gilbert, nor Clark had fired a gun during the robbery,” then-Rockland County D.A. Gribetz decided to charge the three political activists with murder. According to Gilbert, “The law under which we were convicted is called `felony murder.’ And the reason it’s called felony murder is confusing to people who aren’t involved in the law. But it’s not the same thing as direct or intentional murder. I, personally, for example, was never charged with shooting anyone or even having a gun. It’s a New York law that if you’re involved in a robbery then you could be held accountable—every person involved will be held accountable—for every death that results if there’s a shoot-out afterwards. So that’s the basis, legally, for which I was given 75.” Attorney Tipograph told Downtown in 1991 that the decision to charge people with felony murder is always arbitrary and at the sole discretion of the prosecutor, and is always a political decision.

The now-deceased Civil Rights Attorney Kunstler told Downtown in 1991 that he felt that “an armed camp atmosphere” was kept throughout the Brink’s Case trials so that people wouldn’t regard the defendants as human beings. “Everything possible was done to make them appear like vicious animals in custody. This has been done traditionally in recent political trials and it has an effect on jurors. The imagined dangerousness of the defendants and the armed camp atmosphere that permeated throughout the trials influenced every juror—and the press reflected it. You overwhelmingly prejudice people,” Kunstler observed.

Kunstler also felt that holding the Brink’s defendants “in faraway jails” was part of a plan in which “everything was done to depress the defendants and decrease their ability to influence public opinion outside.”

Gilbert recalled that during his trials “Whenever at any time we were taken to court, people who were watching us said it was like the Marines taking a village in Vietnam. You know they had police with M-16s on rooftops. Traffic was stopped in all directions. It was wild. It was like a large-scale paramilitary operation every time we were moved to and from court.”

Although neither Boudin, Clark nor Gilbert had ever been convicted of a felony before, Nyack Judge Lewis refused to release them on bail prior to their trials. “In this situation, there wasn’t even a question of bail. There’s just no way that they were going to give bail. Why? We were seen as very serious enemies of the State. It was a combination of the politics and the fact that there was something above-ground and organized. That was frightening to them,” said Gilbert.
(end of part 2)

Next: Civil Liberties and the 1981 Brink’s Case: A 1991 Downtown Inquiry—Part 3