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The SF8: A 37 Year-Old Case

May 10, 2008
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BY CLAUDE MARKS

The San Francisco Eight (SF8), former members and associates of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, were charged in 2007 with murder and conspiracy charges from 1971! Herman Bell, Jalil Muntaqim (aka Anthony Bottom), Ray Boudreaux, Richard Brown, Hank Jones, Richard O’Neal, Harold Taylor and Francisco Torres range in age from 58 to 73. They are husbands, fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers, and they have been employed for many years in professions including licensed electrician, building engineer, real estate appraiser and community court judge. They are well respected in their communities and deeply loved by their families.

The case against the SF8 is a frame up, based on tortured-induced confessions and fabricated evidence. In 1975 this same case was thrown out of court. It has been revived by Homeland Security using funds that are available to target political activists as “domestic terrorists” in the post-911 era. ALL CHARGES AGAINST THE SF8 SHOULD IMMEDIATELY BE DROPPED!

The Case Against the SF8 is Built on Tortured Confessions

“Do you remember me?” Those words, smugly uttered in 2003 by Homeland Security deputized agents, Frank McCoy and Ed Erdelatz, sent shock waves of pained memories thru John Bowman (now deceased but named in the criminal complaint against the SF8 as a co-conspirator), Ruben Scott and Harold Taylor. Back in 1973, McCoy and Erdelatz were inspectors with the San Francisco Police Department investigating the death of Sgt. John Young who had been killed in an ambush of the Ingleside police station in 1971. The two inspectors believed that the ambush had been carried out by Black militants, most likely members of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPP), but they were unable to bring charges against anyone until they learned that New Orleans police had arrested 13 alleged members of the BPP. They rushed to the scene to join detectives from Los Angeles, New York City and FBI agents, and over the next several days this joint team of detectives and agents attempted to extract confessions from Bowman, Scott and Taylor. When the three former Panthers refused to give the desired answers, the interrogators exited the room and the goon squad from the New Orleans police department took over, literally determined to beat confessions out of them. After the beatings, the New Orleans “team” exited and the interrogators returned.

The methods used were eerily similar to those used in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib in recent years. Suffocation using plastic bags, wool blankets drenched in boiling water, beatings with blunt instruments, blind folding and the use of electric cattle prods on the genitals and sensitive areas of the body were just some of tools of torture employed by the New Orleans police department. McCoy, Erdelatz and their cohorts carefully crafted the story they wanted each man to provide and once the men were at a breaking point, they got them to “confess” to their version of the story as the price for making the torture stop. Returning to San Francisco, McCoy and Erdelatz provided the District Attorney with the coerced statements and the trio was indicted in 1974. However, the District Attorney failed to inform the grand jurors that the confessions he heavily relied upon were coerced. Defense motions to dismiss the indictments were granted by a San Francisco judge in 1975 and 1976, and the case was dormant for the next 30 years.

The COINTELPRO Connection

In the sixties and seventies, hundreds of Black Panthers were targeted by the Federal Government’s secret counter-intelligence program, COINTELPRO. The FBI and local police forces assassinated, arrested, tortured and framed Panthers, as well as many other activists, because they believed that they posed a fundamental threat to U.S. society. In San Francisco, the FBI wiretapped Panther headquarters, infiltrated the chapter, and used every possible avenue to provoke violence within the organization. The case against the San Francisco 8 has to be understood in the context of COINTELPRO’S program to destroy the Panthers, the organization which was called the country’s greatest security threat by J. Edgar Hoover.

“Today’s Phoenix Task force is a continuum from COINTELPRO,” argues Daro Inouye, Jalil Muntaqim’s lawyer. The Phoenix Task Force is the umbrella organization that has empanelled various Grand Jury investigations in this case and is overall responsible for this decades-old Panther prosecution. It includes the US Attorney, the FBI, local police agencies including the SFPD, and the California Department of Justice. Homeland security money makes this attempt to re-criminalize the Panthers possible.

Homeland Security’s Role

McCoy and Erdelatz retired from the San Francisco police department, but immediately after 9/11 they were deputized as Homeland Security agents and given a huge federal budget to reopen this dormant investigation. Emboldened by their new position and empowered by a seemingly endless flow of money, the pair began visiting the eight men and their spouses, as well as relatives, friends, ex-wives, employers (current and former), neighbors and associates all over the country.

McCoy and Erdelatz barraged everyone they visited with probing questions, all the while trying to convince them that they were really investigating “white activists” from the sixties and seventies. For Bowman and Taylor, seeing their torturers again brought the nightmares from 1973 rushing back.

When the visits failed to produce the desired results, the men were harassed and subpoenaed to federal and state grand juries over the course of the next few years. They were required to give fingerprints, DNA samples and eventually were jailed for civil contempt because of their refusal to give testimony before a state grand jury.

Upon their release from jail in 2005, they founded The Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (CDHR) to publicize their experience and the range of human rights abuses perpetrated by the United States government. As members of CDHR they traveled around the country speaking at various venues and sharing their stories. With the help of supporters they created a DVD entitled “Legacy of Torture” and planned its premier for late January 2007 in San Francisco. Five days before the premier, they were arrested, charged and held on $10 million bail. McCoy and Erdelatz had carefully circumvented the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office and had prevailed upon newly elected California State Attorney General, Jerry Brown, to take up the prosecution supported by the federal bankroll.

The Abu Ghraib/Guantánamo Connection

Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo and Extraordinary Rendition have exposed the ugly reality that the U.S. employs and backs torture in prisons and detention facilities around the world in direct violation of international law. The U.S. has ignored the international outcry and instead has tried to legitimize its use of torture as necessary in its war against terror. The case of the San Francisco 8 extends the effort to make torture an acceptable practice to a domestic case. The prosecution is hoping that what was inadmissible 35 years ago has now been normalized. THIS CASE COULD SET AN INTOLERABLE MORAL STANDARD AND A DISASTROUS LEGAL PRECEDENT!

Building Support for the SF8

A team of dedicated and experienced defense lawyers quickly came together and provided representation for the men. Through their efforts, bail was reduced to amounts the men could raise with assistance from their families and supporters. Herman Bell and Jalil Muntaqim have been imprisoned for over 35 years on another COINTELPRO case and are eligible for parole. PULL QUOTE Upon their release they resumed their speaking engagements building awareness about their case, COINTELPRO and political prisoners. They have been invited to speak and show the DVD at forums across the country. Support among prominent politicians, actors, lawyers and religious leaders continues to grow as well as among community members and grassroots activists.

Danny Glover, Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree, Ron Daniels, former Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, Bill Fletcher, former President of TransAfrica, Michael Ratner, Board President of the Center for Constitutional Rights, Lois Dauway of the World Council of Churches, former Georgia state representative, Cynthia McKinney, Cindy Sheehan and Noble Prize Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu who launched an International Campaign calling for the dismissal of the charges and the release of Bell and Muntaqim. The initial signers of the International Call were as follows:

The Most Reverend Dr. Desmond Mpilo Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, Primate of the Church of the Province of Southern Africa; Nobel Peace Laureate 1984

Mairead Corrigan Maguire, Community of Peace People, Northern Ireland; Nobel Peace Laureate 1976

Betty Williams, Community of Peace People, Northern Ireland; Nobel Peace Laureate 1976

Darryl Jordan, Director-American Friends Service Committee* Third World Coalition (Nobel Peace Laureate 1947)

William Wardlaw, Executive Director’s Leadership Council, Amnesty International* (Nobel Peace Laureate 1977)

* Organizations listed for identification purposes only

Weaknesses of the Prosecution’s Case

* Defense motions make clear reference to missing exculpatory evidence including “negative comparisons” of latent prints by FBI fingerprint examiners from 1971 and 1975.
* No DNA samples match any of these men.
* The government hoped that the Grand Juries would pressure someone into cooperating with their prosecution. Instead the brothers refused to cooperate and built unity.
* The prosecution hoped that the charges and arrests would break someone. The opposite has happened and the SF 8 are using this as an opportunity to organize, build a movement against repression, and talk about other political prisoners, torture and COINTELPRO.
* The case continues to depend almost entirely on the tortured statements that have been discredited and thrown out of courts in the 1970s.

MEANWHILE THE SUPPORT COMMITTEE IS CIRCULATING OPEN LETTER TO JERRY BROWN DEMANDING THAT ALL CHARGES BE DROPPED (SEE WEBSITE) EVEN WHILE SUPPORT ACROSS THE COUNTRY BUILDS.

In the spring of 2008 the original conspiracy charges against five of the men were dismissed because they had exceeded the statute of limitations. Similar motions to dismiss on behalf of the remaining three men charged with conspiracy will be reargued after the preliminary hearing. Richard O’Neal was charged only with conspiracy and is no longer a defendant in this case. However, immediately after the dismissal of his conspiracy charges the prosecution served him with a subpoena to testify on its behalf against his former co-defendants at upcoming hearings!

In 2009 the preliminary hearing along with hearings on a number of defense motions including motions to dismiss will begin.

The importance of community support for the SF8 has been consistently felt in the courtroom. People of all ages flock to the court proceedings and frequently high school classes can be seen in attendance. What better way to teach them about civil and human rights than to bring them to court to watch “justice” unfold?

For more information about the SF8 go to www.freetheSF8.org.   Please donate generously and help to spread the word about this important case.

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