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Release of Black Panther leader renews decades-old debate

Arthur Turco had defended members of the Black Panther Party across the country, but it was in Baltimore that he would be arrested and jailed — on charges that he and members of the militant group had killed a suspected police informant within their ranks in 1969.

After a year in Baltimore's jail and a mistrial, Turco said he was offered a deal: plead guilty to a misdemeanor and go free on time served. After discussing it with his associate, William Kunstler — the radical lawyer who defended such brazen civil disobedients as the Chicago Seven and the Attica prison inmates — they decided to take the offer and run.

"'Let's just get the hell out of Baltimore,'" Turco remembers the famed lawyer saying.

Baltimore was a racially and politically tense city then, a period of immense tumult that came flooding back last week when Marshall "Eddie" Conway, a Black Panther leader convicted of killing a police officer in 1970, was released from prison.

"It was a time of revolution in the streets," recalled Thomas D'Alesandro III, who was then Baltimore's mayor. "It was a time of change and confrontation in every aspect of life. That was reflected in the mood of the people."

Conway, now 67, has always maintained his innocence. His supporters believe he was framed as part of a law enforcement campaign to destroy the Panthers, building their argument in large part on declassified FBI documents and other revelations that have demonstrated the depth of government efforts to stem the group's influence.

The Conway case touched off an intense crackdown on the Black Panthers, who clashed frequently with law enforcement and called police "pigs." But police union officials and the family of slain officer Donald Sager say they're convinced that Conway was the killer, regardless of the political sentiments of the time.

In the city that Conway has returned to, the Panthers no longer exist — but issues that they confronted, such as inner-city poverty and harsh police tactics, still resonate.

Also lingering is the controversy over connections to the group: Just last week, a nominee to head the Department of Justice's civil rights division was blocked by the Senate because of legal work he had done on behalf of a former Panther convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer.

And then, as now, there were fears of government surveillance. When Turco, for example, sees the current revelations about government spying from the likes of NSA leaker Edward Snowden, he has to shake his head.

"We went through all that in the '60s," he said. "We hear what goes on today with the spying. It's the same as back then, the only difference is it's more sophisticated now."

Panthers in the city

The Black Panthers grew in prominence as they preached a message of economic and political empowerment in the years after 1968, when riots erupted in Baltimore and other cities following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The group offered community services such as free breakfasts for poor children and health clinics in underserved neighborhoods.

They also stressed self-defense against what they considered a brutal and repressive police force. Law enforcement agencies, however, considered the Panthers dangerous, prompting them to spy on the group and frequently arrest members.

Each side would point to the violence committed by the other: the police killing of Fred Hampton, a leader of the Illinois Panther group, as he slept; the conviction — later overturned — of Panthers founder Huey Newton in the shooting death of Oakland, Calif., police officer John Frey.

The Panthers in Baltimore and elsewhere continually worried that local and federal authorities had infiltrated their ranks. And indeed, once-secret documents from the FBI's counterintelligence program reveal that Baltimore agents kept tabs on black activists, developing informants and placing moles.

Their objectives: "exposing, disrupting, misdirecting, discrediting or otherwise neutralizing the activities of black nationalist … organizations."

One heavily redacted memo from Dec. 2, 1968, reads, "It is felt that the Black Panther Party can be effectively controlled in the Baltimore area."

Members complained that police harassed them — raiding their offices, breaking up peaceful rallies and arresting those associated with the group. Steve McCutchen, a former Panther, said in an interview he never had any problems with police when he was growing up in West Baltimore until he joined the group as a 19-year-old.

"The pigs came for us again," McCutchen wrote in an October 1969 entry in his diary, which was published years later as part of a book by Black Classic Press in Baltimore, started and run by former Panthers leader Paul Coates. "They don't want the Party to operate here. We must be doing something right."

"First time I've spent a birthday in jail," McCutchen wrote a couple of weeks later, while still behind bars. "Baltimore lost the World Series. No time for baseball anymore. There's a struggle to think about. No court. No bail."

Turco, now 70 and retired, said authorities waged a veritable war on the Panthers.

"That whole era, the relations with the Police Department were very toxic," said Turco, who is white. "[Officials] tried to instill a fear of the Black Panther Party. They totally misrepresented what the Black Panthers stood for, and what it was trying to accomplish."

While he doesn't condone the kill-the-pigs rhetoric of the Panthers, Turco said members felt that they were under siege.

"You were dealing with mostly young men who got more and more angry as they saw the government approach to destroying this group — the mass incarceration, the high bails where you couldn't get out," Turco said.

The shooting

But others say that those strained relations do not amount to evidence that Conway was wrongly convicted.

"That does an injustice to all those who were targeted by police. That stuff was happening back then. But there's no evidence it happened in this case. None," said Gary McLhinney, the longtime Baltimore police union president.

Conway requested a new trial under a 2012 Maryland Court of Appeals ruling that verdicts before 1980 were invalid because of faulty jury instructions, a decision that has led to other prisoners being released.

Under a deal with prosecutors, Conway's conviction will stand. He agreed to drop the request for retrial in exchange for release on time served. Conway declined interview requests for this article.

On April 21, 1970, two white officers, Sager and Stanley Sierakowski, were ambushed while responding to a domestic disturbance call. Sager was killed, Sierakowski injured.

Two Panthers members were arrested at the scene, and Conway was arrested the next day at his Post Office job. He had been identified through photographs by a young black officer named Roger Nolan, who said Conway was the person he exchanged gunfire with in an alley near the crime scene.

Sager's son, David, is among those unconvinced that Conway was targeted because he was a Panther.

"Certainly, I wasn't privy to any of the investigative details that happened back then," said Sager, who was 7 years old at the time. "I was certainly led to believe, and I trust the Baltimore Police Department, the city of Baltimore and, furthermore, the justice system that they did get the right guy."

Government tactics

In the period leading up to the shooting, the government had been increasingly concerned about the Panthers, according to declassified documents from the FBI counterintelligence program, known as COINTELPRO. But their tactics as outlined in the documents largely show peripheral interference.

Then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover directed agents in Baltimore to start rumors — for example that the leftist Students for a Democratic Society was using the Black Panther Party to "do their dirty work" — or to pen anonymous letters in an attempt to divide members and make them question each other.

For example, anonymous letters were sent from Baltimore to the incarcerated Newton, alleging that organizational funds were being diverted for personal use. Some were signed "A Soul Brother."

An October 1969 memo includes discussion that the Panthers were running low on funds: "Baltimore suggests contact with the gas and electric companies there to determine status of BPP account and if unpaid, arrangements made to turn off utilities. This could have the effect of splitting the chapter by not having a central meeting place."

In 1969, according to news reports, the power was shut off at the Panthers' East Baltimore headquarters

Agents also asked the Health Department if it could shut down the Panthers' breakfast program, but were told no. Another memo shows agents being instructed to make a noise complaint to Baltimore police if the Panthers loudly played a record by group member Eldridge Cleaver.

But the shootings of the officers led to a police crackdown on the local Panthers. According to news reports, 150 officers conducted a series of raids on April 30, 1970, in which 10 Panthers and sympathizers were arrested in connection with the so-called "bag of bones" killing the year before — the case that Turco and Kunstler were involved in.

The skeletal remains of Eugene Leroy Anderson, 20, had been found in Leakin Park in October 1969 and, according to then-police Commissioner Donald D. Pomerleau, information from the FBI linked the death to the Black Panthers.

Police said Panthers killed him because they believed he was a police informant, although McCutchen is among those who say Anderson was not a member nor was he killed by Panthers.

Pomerleau — whose "Inspectional Services Division" tracked activist groups and infiltrated political campaigns and student meetings — also sought and received an injunction that stopped the Panthers from distributing their incendiary party newspaper. The commissioner said the publication had played a part in the "ambush" of the police officers.

The newspaper encouraged blacks to "fight or die," called for "death to the pig," and contained illustrated instructions on how to assemble a "people's hand grenade." But the injunction was an unusual restriction on free speech rights, recalls attorney Billy Murphy.

Civil rights struggle

Murphy, a veteran Baltimore attorney, cast the struggles of Baltimore in 1970 as a battle between a rising generation of black leaders hoping to build on the gains in civil rights won in the 1960s, and a "counter-revolution" gearing up under President Richard Nixon.

"The movement was in full swing," Murphy said. "You had this increasingly aggressive [move] by black men and women to finish the job, and you had this increasingly aggressive counter-revolution by whites to roll back what was going on."

Conway's trial for the murder of Sager turned raucous at times, "a Roman forum," the judge complained. Supporters of both races — "in the dress and hairstyles of the youth culture," as one reporter phrased it — would raise their fists in the black-power sign in solidarity with the defendant and make clear their disdain for the prosecution.

"In very old-fashioned Baltimore, they were seen as extremist, and almost anti-American," Helena Hicks, a longtime civil rights activist, recalled of the Panthers.

Hicks, 79, has worked with more moderate groups such as the NAACP, but said she understood the impatience of groups such as the Panthers.

"Change is slow. We got new laws, but implementation was not easy," said Hicks, who was among the '60s-era activists who integrated lunch counters such as those at Read's drugstores. Hicks said Baltimore's power structure at the time "tried to get the black community to buy into that [sense] that they were thugs, to be afraid of them.

"They were loud, they had uniforms, they screamed," Hicks said of the Panthers. "I think they probably were the best example of psychological warfare that I've seen. They really did stir up fear when there was no need for fear. They had full control of the city psyche."

Trial and fallout

Conway refused to cooperate with his court-appointed lawyer, insisting that his actual attorney was Turco, who oddly enough was his cellmate at the city jail.

"I feel as though … this prosecutor and this judge has been selected to persecute me [in] an attempt to destroy the Black Panther Party here in Baltimore City," Conway said, according to transcripts of the trial. Peter Ward, the prosecutor on the case, denied that the trial was political.

A jury of 10 blacks and two whites convicted Conway of first-degree murder in January 1971,

Turco still maintains that Conway's conviction was a "miscarriage of justice" and that authorities threatened people with lifetime imprisonment unless they testified against the Panthers.

McLhinney, the former police union president, continues to argue against the idea that Conway was a victim of the times. He strongly objected in 2001 when the Baltimore City Council issued a resolution urging a pardon of Conway.

"This wasn't a confrontation. These [officers] were sitting in their radio car, and they were executed," McLhinney said. "[Conway] has had tons of appeals. He was before every court in the state, with the case viewed in modern daylight by judges who have refused to overturn it or modify the sentence."

But even as black activists suffered major setbacks with the crackdown on the Black Panthers and close surveillance by police, Murphy said 1970 was also a year of real hope as African-American candidates won breakthrough victories at the polls.

Parren Mitchell was elected to the House of Representatives and Milton Allen was elected as Baltimore state's attorney. Allen ran with the first successful black candidate for a court clerkship and Murphy's own father, who was elected as a judge.

Murphy called 1970 "a year of great hope and political meaning in Baltimore. There was high hopes in the black community that there would be change."

Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan and researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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