A Look Inside the Astonishing Black Panther Murder Trial of 1970-71

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Jan. 30 2013 12:00 PM

A Look Inside the Astonishing Black Panther Murder Trial of 1970-71

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These drawings are the only known visual record of the 1970-1971 trial of New Haven, Conn., Black Panther Party members for the murder of fellow Panther Alex Rackley. Suspecting that Rackley was a police informant, Panthers shot and killed him in 1969. Those who pulled the trigger admitted their guilt. The question at stake in the trial was whether Panther leaders Ericka Huggins and Bobby Seale were involved.

Robert Templeton, a sketch artist and painter, received a commission from CBS News to document the trial. The courtroom was technically closed to artists and photographers, so he had to hide his work. Templeton executed his drawings in two stages, first sketching initial impressions in pastel, and then making larger, more complete images on helicopter rides from New Haven to CBS headquarters in New York. CBS showed the finished products on the evening news.

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The network went to such lengths to procure courtroom images because the story was a media circus that lasted for more than a year. On May 1, 1970, a crowd of 15,000 out-of-town Panther Party members, Yale students, and other supporters gathered on the New Haven Green to protest the trial, which they believed was a baseless attempt to disempower and discredit the Panthers. Yale’s president, Kingman Brewster, publicly supported the protesters; Benjamin Spock spoke at the rally. (This excellent slideshow from the New Haven Register tells the story of the trial and the protests in photos.)

In 1971, Seale and Huggins were released after the jury failed to reach a verdict. The Panthers who had admitted to killing Rackley were convicted.

The complete collection of Templeton’s Black Panther trial sketches is in Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and can be viewed online.