SAN FRANCISCO — A statement issued last week by Nobel Peace Prize laureates including South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu has galvanized attention on a long-simmering case involving eight former Black Panther Party members charged with the 1971 murder of a San Francisco police sergeant. The men and their supporters contend the evidence cited against them was obtained under torture.
On Nov. 30, a World Council of Churches representative officially released the International Call on the San Francisco Eight, signed by Archbishop Tutu, Mairead Maguire and Betty Williams of the Community of Peace People, Northern Ireland, and representatives of organizations that have also received the peace prize.
The statement cites the known involvement of the U.S. government and the FBI in illegal policing against civil and human rights organizations, including the COINTELPRO operation targeting the Black Panther Party, the lack of new evidence in the case, and the dismissal of the alleged evidence presented in an earlier investigation.
The Nobel laureates call for dropping all charges against the eight, freeing two of the men who have been jailed for decades, and pursuing official investigations into “the ongoing legacy and possible continued operation of COINTELPRO and similar programs, with an eye towards true reconciliation and human rights based on internationally recognized standards and principles.”
Six of the eight men — Francisco Torres, Richard Brown, Richard O’Neal, Ray Boudreaux, Hank Jones and Harold Taylor — were rearrested last January on charges stemming from the 1971 killing of San Francisco Police Sgt. John Young and other charges connected to attacks on other officers. Two others, Herman Bell and Jalil Muntaquim, have long been jailed on other charges.
Three of the men had been charged in 1973 with Young’s murder. But a federal court ruled the next year that both San Francisco and New Orleans police had tortured them to obtain a confession. Charges were dismissed in 1975 because statements used as evidence were made following torture.
The case was reopened in 2003 by the U.S. Department of Justice, using funds allocated to the Department of Homeland Security. The California state attorney’s office, which is working on the case with a federal task force, has said no new scientific evidence has emerged.
Both on Jan. 26 and Nov. 30, “Democracy Now” featured interviews with San Francisco Eight members who detailed horrific accounts of prolonged torture at the hands of New Orleans police in 1973.
A Dec. 3 court hearing in the case brought nearly 100 supporters to a lively picket line in front of the City’s Hall of Justice. At the hearing, Judge Philip Moscone set Jan. 10 as the date for the San Francisco Eight to officially enter pleas. He also set April 21 for the start of the preliminary hearing in the case.
Marching in the picket line was S.F. Eight member Francisco Torres. “The message the government wants to send youth is, this is what will happen to you if you get involved and resist government policies, so it’s pointless to resist,” he said.
“This is not a government of the people any more,” Torres warned. “We need to become more aware and more investigative, and our movements need to build links and listen to each other.”
On the picket line was a sizable contingent from the San Francisco Gray Panthers, which focuses on social justice, civil liberties and peace. Gray Panther leader Michael Lyon said the organization opposed the Patriot Act and other post-Sept. 11 Bush administration curbs on civil liberties. He called the reactivation of the San Francisco Eight case an effort to keep people under control at the same time the working class is under increasing economic attack.