Marin County courthouse incident

Marin County courthouse incident
Date August 7, 1970
Location San Rafael, California
Goals Freedom for the Soledad Brothers
Methods Kidnapping

The Marin County courthouse incident was an event which occurred on August 7, 1970, when 17-year-old Jonathan Jackson attempted to negotiate the freedom of the Soledad Brothers (which included his older brother George) by kidnapping Superior Court judge Harold Haley from the Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael, California. The resulting shootout left four men dead, including both Jackson and Judge Haley. Two others were wounded. The event received intense media coverage, as did the subsequent manhunt and trial of Angela Davis, an ousted assistant professor from UCLA with connections to George and Jonathan Jackson, and the Black Panthers. Davis owned the weapons used in the incident.


Petition by W. L. Nolen

In the summer of 1969, W.L. Nolen, a twenty-year-old inmate at Soledad prison who had been convicted in 1963 for robbery, began circulating a petition to file a lawsuit against the prison's superintendent, Cletus J. Fitzharris, charging that guards and officials at the facility knew of "existing social and racial conflicts" and that they had been seeking to excite them through "direct harassment and in ways not actionable in court", including the filing of false disciplinary reports and intentionally leaving black inmates' cells unlocked to put them in danger of assault.

He stated further that officials were "willfully creating and maintaining situations that creates and poses dangers [sic] to the plaintiff [himself]" and that he "feared for his life."[1]

Shootings on January 13, 1970

On January 13, 1970, three black prisoners were shot dead at Soledad by corrections officer Opie G. Miller. Nolen was among the slain, along with Cleveland Edwards, then 21, who had been convicted in 1967 of assaulting a police officer, and Alvin Miller, then 23, who had been convicted of robbery. According to Ellsworth Ferguson, an administrative assistant to Fitzharris at the time, a fight began during a scheduled exercise period for 15 inmates from the maximum security wing of the prison. During the conflict, two white inmates among the group were beaten to the ground and Miller was reportedly "fearful that several might be seriously hurt or killed."[2] Officials later stated that it was "surmised" that the fight was racial in nature.[3]

Officer Miller, an expert marksman, shouted and blew a whistle but gave no warning shot before firing on Nolen, Edwards and Alvin Miller. White inmate Billy D. Harris, then 23, who was serving time for assault and perjury, was injured.[1][3][4]

According to statements made by inmates, there had been an intentional mixing of white prisoners who were known racists and black prisoners in the yard and that some manner of fight had been anticipated. The congregation of the 15 men in the prison yard had been the first integrated exercise period in several months. The death of a black inmate, Clarence Causey, who had been stabbed to death in 1968, had left racial tensions running high, and for several months prior to January 13, inmates had only been allowed exercise in the yard one at a time.[1]

Furthermore, inmates claimed that the guards had intentionally barred them from taking the wounded prisoners to the hospital, allowing the three shooting victims to bleed out for nearly twenty minutes before they were finally taken to receive medical aid. Thomas Meneweather, a black inmate who was present for the shootings and reportedly attempted to carry Alvin Miller inside, stated, "I started to walk toward the door through which we had entered the yard but the tower guard pointed the gun at me and shook his head. Then I started forward with tears in my eyes, expecting to be shot down every minute, but the tower guard told me, 'That's far enough.'"[1] The next day, 13 black inmates housed in the prison began a hunger strike, demanding a federal investigation of Officer Miller's actions, in addition to requesting segregated facilities and "psychiatric examinations by a black psychiatrist for all gun tower guards."[2]

Opie Miller was exonerated of the deaths of prisoners a few days later by an all-white Monterey County grand jury. None of the black inmates present for the shootings were asked to testify.

Murder of John Vincent Mills

On January 17, 1970, four days after the shootings,[5] prison guard John Vincent Mills (aged 26), was beaten, dragged up three flights of stairs and tossed to his death. A note found beside his body read "One down, two to go."[6]

Three black inmates were charged with this murder and were transferred to San Quentin to await trial. The three defendants, Fleeta Drumgo, John Clutchette and George Jackson, eventually came to be known as the "Soledad Brothers". Jackson was known at the time to be a political activist and writer, and he and Nolen had worked together in 1966 to found the prison gang the Black Guerrilla Family, a black power group targeting what it believed to be the white racist infrastructure of the prison system.[7]

Escalating racial violence

Following the January 13 shootings and the death of John Mills, racial tensions grew increasingly violent at Soledad. On March 16, 1970, white guards William Monagan and Wallace Coffman were held hostage for approximately forty-five minutes by five inmates before tear gas was deployed to free them. The incident was reported in The Bulletin.[8]

On July 23, 1970, a white guard, William H. Shull, age 40, was found stabbed to death in a shed for exercise equipment. Forty different wounds were found on his body. Six days later, the body of a white convicted robber, Roy William Turner, aged twenty-two, was found shoved under his prison cell cot.[9]

Events of August 7, 1970

In 1970, fired UCLA professor Angela Davis considered a prison inmate named George Jackson to be her "lifetime" husband, though they were never legally married. George Jackson was a Black Panther and in a subset of the Black Panthers called the Soledad Brothers. A plan was hatched to get Jackson out of prison by kidnapping persons during the trial of another Black Panther named James McClain. Those to be held hostage - including the judge, deputy district attorney, and jurors - would be traded for Jackson's freedom. McClain was being tried in the Marin County Hall of Justice. Judge Haley was presiding over the trial of McClain who was accused of stabbing a prison guard while serving a sentence for burglary.[10]

The person chosen to effectuate the kidnapping was George's younger brother Jonathan. In the week preceding the kidnapping, Angela Davis and Jonathan Jackson spent much time together, visiting George, buying things, and cashing checks. In the days before the kidnapping, Davis and Jonathan Jackson drove to Mexico, Santa Cruz, Oakland, San Jose, San Francisco, and San Rafael. Two days before the kidnapping, Davis and Jonathan Jackson bought a shotgun from a pawn shop in San Francisco. After Davis paid for the shotgun, the barrel of the shotgun was sawed off so as to be concealable.[11]

On the day before the kidnapping, Davis and Jonathan Jackson were in a rented yellow utility van at the Marin Courthouse. Jonathan went into the courtroom where James McClain was on trial. He was wearing a long buttoned-up raincoat, despite the heat and lack of rain. The van had troubles running, so Jonathan and Davis drove to a gas station down the street from the courthouse to get the van repaired.

On August 7, 1970, a heavily armed Jonathan Jackson returned to the courthouse in the yellow van. He entered the courtroom again wearing the long raincoat, and brought three guns registered to Angela Davis[12] into the Hall of Justice.[11][13]

Jackson sat among the spectators for a few minutes before opening his satchel, drawing a pistol and throwing it to Black Panther defendant McClain. Jackson then produced a M1 carbine from his raincoat as McClain held the pistol against Judge Haley's head. Jackson was reported as saying "Freeze. Just freeze." He then told court officials, attorneys and jurors to lie on the floor while another San Quentin inmate, Ruchell Magee, who was to have witnessed at McClain's trial, went to free three other testifying prisoners from their holding cell. A couple with a baby was also ordered into the judge's chambers.[14]

After being freed by Magee, a fourth man, Black Panther William A. Christmas, joined the other three kidnappers. Haley was forced at gunpoint to call the sheriff Louis P. Mountanos, in the hopes of convincing the police to refrain from intervening. Road flares, which were used to simulate sticks of dynamite, were held against Judge Haley's neck before being replaced with a sawed-off shotgun which was fastened under his chin with adhesive tape. The kidnappers, after some debate, then secured four other hostages whom they bound with piano wire: Deputy District Attorney Gary Thomas and jurors Maria Elena Graham, Doris Whitmer, and Joyce Rodoni.[14][15]

The four kidnappers and five hostages then moved into the corridor of the courthouse, which at this point had become crowded with responding police who had been summoned by a bailiff.[10][15] No action was taken against them at this point. Around this time, Jim Kean, a photographer for the San Rafael Independent Journal, arrived at the building after he had heard news of the incident from police radio in his car. He stepped off an elevator directly adjacent to the hostages and kidnappers, and was reportedly told by one of them "You take all the pictures you want. We are the revolutionaries." Kean and his colleague Roger Bockrath took a series of photographs of the group, apparently after some brief discussion as to whether the two journalists should be added to the ranks of the hostages.[14]

The group then entered the elevator, informing the police that "[they wanted] the Soledad brothers freed by 12:30 today."[14] When the hostages were forced out onto the sidewalk in front of the Hall of Justice, Judge Haley asked where they were being taken. He was told they were being taken to the airport where they would get a plane. The kidnappers then forced the hostages into a rented Ford van which they began to drive towards an exit leading to the U.S. 101 freeway.[14] The police had set up a road block outside of the civic center in anticipation of the group leaving. As Jonathan Jackson drove the hostages and three convicts away from the courthouse, front passenger McClain shot at the police stationed in the parking lot. The police shot back. Judge Haley was killed by the discharge of the shotgun which had been taped to his neck. Gary Thomas, one of the hostages, grabbed a gun from Jackson and began shooting at the kidnappers. A shooting melee ensued, in which three Black Panthers were killed. The only Black Panther abductor to survive was Ruchell Magee. Prosecutor Thomas was paralyzed for life.[16] Maria Elena Graham, one of the jurors being held captive, suffered a bullet wound to her arm.[15]


Following the events of August 7, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Angela Davis. She became a fugitive and fled California. She was secreted to Chicago to meet up with fellow Communist leader David Poindexter, Jr., who took her to Miami, Florida. In an effort to hide from authorities, Davis used false identification, cut off her notorious afro, wore a wig, plucked her eyebrows, wore makeup, and donned business eyeglasses. On October 13, 1970, FBI agents found her at the Howard Johnson Motor Lodge in New York City.[17] President Richard M. Nixon congratulated the FBI on its "capture of the dangerous terrorist, Angela Davis".

Angela Davis with Valentina Tereshkova

Davis was charged as an accomplice to conspiracy, kidnapping, and homicide. In 1972, she was tried and found not guilty on all counts. Ruchell Magee pleaded guilty to the charge of aggravated kidnapping for his part in the assault. In return for his plea, the Attorney General asked the Court to dismiss the charge of murder (of Judge Harold Haley). Magee later attempted unsuccessfully to withdraw his plea, and was sentenced in 1975 to life in prison.[18] He is currently imprisoned in Corcoran State Prison and has lost numerous bids for parole.

On October 8, 1970, the Marin County Courthouse was bombed. A group known as the Weathermen later claimed responsibility for the action, which was carried out in retaliation for the killing of Jackson and the other abductors.[19]

In 1971, three days before he was to go on trial for the Mills murder, George Jackson was fatally shot in the prison yard of San Quentin during a riotous escape attempt. Officials claim that Jackson had smuggled a 9mm pistol into the prison and he and nearly two dozen other prisoners were attempting to escape. During the conflict, three corrections officers and two other inmates were killed. Six of the inmates (known as the San Quentin Six) were later tried for their participation.

Susie Edwards, Perry and Sadie Miller, and O.C. and Addie Nolen, the parents of Cleveland Edwards, Alvin Miller and W.L. Nolen, respectively, eventually filed a $1.2 million dollar damage suit against Opie G. Miller for the deaths of their sons.[20] Jet magazine reported in its May 22, 1975 edition that the families ultimately received a total of "$270,000 from the state of California after an all white jury decided that eight prison employes had caused the inmates' deaths".[21]

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 Yee, Min Sun (April 1973). "Death on the Yard: The Untold Killings at Soledad & San Quentin" (PDF). Ramparts (magazine): 36–40. Retrieved August 14, 2010.
  2. 1 2 "Negro Prisoners begin hunger strike in bid for investigation". The Bulletin. January 15, 1970. Retrieved August 14, 2010.
  3. 1 2 "Guard At Soledad Shoots, Kills Three Brawling Convicts In Yard". Lodi News-Sentinel. January 14, 1970. Retrieved August 14, 2010.
  4. Associated Press (January 14, 1970). "Guard Kills 3 Prisoners in California". The Milwaukee Journal. Retrieved August 14, 2010.
  5. "Prison Guard Is Beaten to Death". Beaver County Times. January 17, 1970. Retrieved August 14, 2010.
  6. Maloney, Willey (September 29, 1970). "Soledad Prison Wracked by Violence". The Deseret News. Retrieved August 14, 2010.
  7. Herrera, Nico. "Prison Offenders: Black Guerilla Family". Retrieved August 13, 2010.
  8. "Tear Gas Used to Free Guards". The Bulletin. March 17, 1970. Retrieved August 14, 2010.
  9. Associated Press (July 29, 1970). "Convict is Found Slain at Soledad". The Modesto Bee. Retrieved August 14, 2010.
  10. 1 2 "Justice: A Bad Week for the Good Guys". TIME. August 17, 1970. Retrieved August 8, 2010.
  11. 1 2 "Search broadens for Angela Davis". Eugene Register-Guard. Associated Press. August 17, 1970. Retrieved September 14, 2009.
  12. Millies, Stephen (August 3, 2009). "Long live the spirit of Jonathan Jackson". Workers World Newspaper.
  13. Aptheker, Bettina (1997). The Morning Breaks: The Trial of Angela Davis. Cornell University Press.
  14. 1 2 3 4 5 "Attempted Escape At San Quentin Leaves Six Dead". Bangor Daily News. Bangor, Maine. UPI. August 23, 1971. pp. 1, 3. Retrieved October 23, 2010.
  15. 1 2 3 Associated Press (August 8, 1970). "Courtroom Escape Attempt/Convicts, Trial Judge Slain". Sarasota Herald.
  16. Associated Press (November 11, 1971). "He's On The Job Though Paralyzed". Spartanburg Herald-Journal.
  17. Charleton, Linda (April 28, 2011). "F.B.I Seizes Angela Davisin Motel Here". The New York Times. Retrieved April 26, 2011.
  18. Associated Press (January 23, 1975). "Magee Gets Life Term". The Milwaukee Journal. Retrieved August 11, 2010.
  19. Alderman, Jeffery D. (October 9, 1970). "New York Courthouse Bombed: Radicals Claim Responsibility". Kentucky New Era. Retrieved August 11, 2010.
  20. "Parents File Suit". The Bulletin. Bend, Oregon. January 13, 1971. Retrieved August 13, 2010.
  21. Jet Magazine, May 22, 1975 (archived); accessed June 4, 2016.
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