Mr. Conway tells the story of his arrest and trial, and being “represented” by a lawyer who spent 45 minutes with him before going to trial
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network and Reality Asserts Itself. We’ve been interviewing Eddie Conway, the former Black Panther. And in his book Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther, here’s what he writes about his trial.
These killers used war and genocide as a means of securing a global economy for themselves. I knew that if these folks would kill their own children, like they did at Kent State, they would surely use the heavy hand of government to swat us Panthers like so many roaches. I have no illusions about receiving justice in America.
A little further down he writes, the seven days at my trial demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that this country is indeed a police state.
And once again Eddie Conway joins us in the studio.
Thanks for joining us.
EDDIE CONWAY, FMR. BLACK PANTHER PARTY MEMBER, BALTIMORE CHAPTER: Okay. Thank you for having me.
JAY: So, quickly, in terms of biography for Eddie, Eddie was born in Baltimore, was a Panther, went to jail in–.
CONWAY: Nineteen seventy.
JAY: Nineteen seventy.
JAY: And so we’ve been doing sort of the history of your life, bits of it, at any rate, up until this point. Before we get into the trial, let’s just talk about the events that brought you to the trial. Talk about why you were arrested and what the events were around that.
CONWAY: I was arrested a couple of days after a shooting in which two Panthers got locked up, a police got killed, and another police got shot. And they decided initially to arrest the entire leadership of the Baltimore Panther Party. A police informer had disappeared six months before. They had indictments that they were going to execute against us at some point. It took six months, apparently, for them to do it. They then did it as a result of the incident.
While in jail, they put a police informant in my cell.
JAY: Okay. Before we do that, let’s just get to what happened. So, if I understand correctly, a police officer was killed, another was wounded,–
JAY: –and then two Panthers were found in the vicinity,–
CONWAY: In that area. Yes.
JAY: –and, actually, with one of the weapons.
JAY: And that’s what leads to, two days later, you’re at work at the post office and you get arrested.
JAY: So pick it up from there.
CONWAY: Yes. Well, they came to the post office while I was working, and the supervisor called me to the office, and they jumped out the ceiling and pretty much locked me up and bundled me off and took me to the central booking, to the police station. Yes.
JAY: Now, if I understand from the–it took two days for–one of the police officers that was in on arresting the other two guys claimed that he had chased someone, and after two days identified you.
JAY: And what was the issue of that identification?
CONWAY: Well, the issue was–and we ultimately went to the Supreme Court about it–was that apparently they took two stacks of photographs, and no other photo was duplicated in the stacks, and they put my photograph in both stacks. And after–and I don’t know. They might have already instructed the guy to select that particular picture. But as he looked through stack one, he didn’t see anybody he could identify; he looked through stack two, and he’d see the same picture duplicated–he identified me. We did challenge it, like I say, all the way up to the Supreme Court, but we lost that challenge because by rights, at that time, by me being in custody, I should have been put in a lineup.
JAY: Yeah. Why wasn’t there a lineup?
CONWAY: Because they wouldn’t have been able to make an identification.
JAY: And under Maryland law at the time, there didn’t have to be a lineup.
CONWAY: Well, at the time, it was the law that it should have been a lineup. But because of the Supreme Court case–a Supreme Court case, I believe, that came out of the South decided that a lineup wasn’t necessary, and at that point, then it became a moot question.
JAY: Right. Now, where were you at the time of the murder?h
CONWAY: I was at the headquarters down on Gay Street.
JAY: Headquarters of the Panther Party.
CONWAY: Yeah, headquarters of the Panther Party. Yeah.
JAY: Now, just for people–if anyone’s watching this that hasn’t watched the first five segments of this series, well, one, you should, ’cause this is going to make a whole lot more sense if you watch the leadup to this. But just in case you haven’t, Eddie did get convicted, spent 44 years in jail, and was just released about six months ago, and to a large extent, one, on the testimony of this police officer, which is a pretty dubious identification. The other thing is you had told me he had a story that’s in the transcripts that he knew you because you had grown up and he knew you from the district he worked in.
CONWAY: Yeah, yeah. And that story, you know, was a bogus story also, just like his selecting of the photographs. His position was that I grew up in West Baltimore, and he watched me grew up, and he knew me. And at the time I think I was, like, 24. I had been a youth in West Baltimore up until, like, the mid ’50s, I believe, and they took our house, eminent domain, and they build the police station, which he was working out of–
JAY: That’s kind of ironic.
CONWAY: –on top of our house. And we moved to East Baltimore. And I went to school, I went to elementary school in East Baltimore, went to junior high school in East Baltimore. I went in the military from East Baltimore. And when I came back from the military, which lasted for three years, I moved back into East Baltimore. And as I worked at Johns Hopkins and the post office, I mean, it’s clearly stated on the records that my address–all of my addresses were East Baltimore addresses.
JAY: And this was a nighttime chase. He’s chasing someone at night.
JAY: And these kinds of testimonies are always pretty dubious.
JAY: But the testimony that sort of sunk you, in a way, was this jailhouse informant. What was that about?
CONWAY: Well, I knew that he was an informant before they put him in my cell. When they brought him in the jail, some of the other prisoners knew him from the Jessup prison, and they knew he was an informer, and they sent word up to my cell that they was getting ready to–they had specifically assigned him to my cell and that he was an informer.
And so when they brought him up to the cell and opened the door, I stepped out and I refused to go back in. And it led to an incident. And, of course, they had to call the goon squad, as it was then, and they had to bring teargas and mace, and they actually physically forced me to go back in the cell. But the result of that was that they had to record it in the tier book–the sergeant had to record that an incident had occurred, that they had to call in additional help, and that they had to use force. And because of that, that was one of the things that showed that I was already aware that this guy was–.
JAY: Yeah, it actually came out at trial that you had complained about this guy being put in the cell ’cause it was well known he did this kind of stuff.
JAY: On the other hand, this becomes an important piece of the evidence against you.
CONWAY: Yeah. And, basically, they put them in the cell, they left him in the cell for three days. And–probably a mistake on my part–people on the tier also knew he was an informer, and they knew, they understood what the incident was about, and they wanted–.
JAY: And he claimed you confessed there.
CONWAY: Yeah. They wanted to beat him up. And I knew at that time that I was being held illegally and they didn’t have any reason to keep me, and my fear was that, okay, if they beat this guy up, I’m going to–they’re going to accuse me of orchestrating that, and then they’re going to have justification for holding me for something additional.
JAY: Now, again, we’ve talked about a lot of this in the previous segments of the interview, but this is all in the context of a national campaign called COINTELPRO, which is the FBI and NSA and local police forces. And it’s clear from the documents that came out later that they were out to get the Panthers. So the idea of you being set up is not some isolated incident. This was happening all across the country.
CONWAY: Yes, in fact. And, of course, we didn’t find out about that that until several years later, after they had literally destroyed the Black Panther Party. They had the Church hearings in, like, ’75-76, and the documents and the papers came out. Prior to that, they had–files were stolen up in Pennsylvania–Media, Pennsylvania, I believe it was–and those files indicated that there was an operation called COINTELPRO that was spying on groups and sabotaging groups. But it still took several years before the government actually convened a committee to study and investigate it.
But what apparently occurred, in hindsight, looking back, we had 37 chapters, we had 37 state chapters at the time. In the period of a year and a half, they destroyed 25 of those chapters, either locked up the leadership, killed the leadership, chased the leadership out of the country, or disrupted those organizations in each state.
JAY: Now, the murder you were convicted for, two Panthers do get into a fight with these police officers. One of them is killed. As well as you know it now, was it a mission to go kill a police officer? Why do you think this fight broke out the way it was?
CONWAY: I don’t know. And even though we all were in jail together at some point, it was basically one of those things that you didn’t ask people about. I don’t know exactly what occurred or why it occurred. I know that one of them eventually died in the prison system, and the other one was paroled several years ago.
JAY: Yeah. At one point, one of the guys, I guess–I think his last name was Johnson [spl?]–he had given evidence to the police that you were in on it, but then he recants.
CONWAY: Yeah. He was going to–they made a–in fact, what they did was they approached him and said, like, okay, we got you and we got you with the guns, so on and so on. So if you say Conway did it, we’ll let you go. And so, I mean, for him that was a good deal, apparently. So he was saying, like, okay, I will say that. And then I guess he thought about it and realized that that was wrong and he reneged on them. And it was the statement that they gave him to testify against me that they gave to the informer, because once they couldn’t get him to carry that statement forward, they then put those words in the informer’s mouth and they used that same statement.
JAY: This is the jailhouse guy.
CONWAY: The jailhouse guy, yes.
JAY: Okay. Now, you wanted William Kunstler to represent you.
JAY: And they ask for 30–. William Kunstler, for people that don’t know, was a very famous civil rights lawyer of the day and defended many other Panthers, as well as very well known leaders of the antiwar movement and other kind of political cases. Kunstler was going to do it but needed 30 days. The judge originally says yes to the 30 days, then, the next day, if I understand it correctly, for some reason–one speculates someone talked to the judge–says no.
CONWAY: Well, for clarification, Kunstler wasn’t going to do it. He came down, he talked to me, and he talked to the judge, and he asked the judge for 30 days so he could send one of the people from his firm down. He was going to send a lawyer down. And the judge told him, okay, he could have the 30 days to do that. And that was a Friday. And Monday they came and took me out of my cell and took me to trial and said that they were reneging on that agreement.
JAY: And they give you a court-appointed public defender.
CONWAY: And gave me accord-appointed public defender.
JAY: And then you decide not to participate in the trial at all. So–
JAY: –what did that mean, and why?
CONWAY: Well, two things. One is that that court-appointed public defender I’ve only seen for 45 minutes.
JAY: He was going to defend you on–this is a capital murder charge.
CONWAY: This is a capital murder charge.
JAY: There was the death penalty in Maryland at the time.
CONWAY: The death penalty in Maryland.
JAY: And he’s going to defend you with 45 minutes prep.
CONWAY: For 45 minutes. So I explained to the judge, I said, I’m not going to go to trial with this guy. I’ve seen him for exactly 45 minutes, and the records showed that I had only seen him for 45 minutes. It wasn’t speculation. It was, like, the visitation record said 45 minutes. And so how in the world could they think he could be prepared to go to trial to represent me, and how in the world would I, in all good consciousness, knowing already that there was, like, a lot of skulduggery going on, from the police informer to the identification with the photos and everything else now, why in the world would I trust somebody that I didn’t even really have a relationship with? So I fired him. And they didn’t let me fire him. And then they did let me fire him and they told me I could represent myself. But then, when I started representing myself, they started ignoring it and talking to him as if he was still employed. And so at that point I just told him if they was going to have a trial without my input and without me, then I didn’t need to be in the courtroom. So I withdrew from the trial and sat in the bullpen through the whole trial.
JAY: This is underneath the–.
CONWAY: Underneath the jail, underneath where the courtroom is. That was part of it.
And I guess the other part of it is that knowing that I couldn’t get a fair trial and I’m basically–we were basically talking back and forth to national headquarters, to Oakland, and their feeling was that if I was going to be railroaded, then I shouldn’t participate in the trial. And I–at that time I actually agreed. I didn’t see how I could get a fair trial. It seemed like everything was stacked against me, and it just didn’t seem to be worth my while to sit through it and participate in it.
JAY: Now, you could be facing the death penalty. So when you’re making this kind of decision, you’re knowing you could be facing the death penalty.
JAY: So, in retrospect, what do you think of that decision?
CONWAY: Well, it was a mistake, I mean, in retrospect. I mean, for a long time I didn’t think it was a mistake, but realizing that it was my politics that made me make that mistake–my politics was that I did not believe that there could be a fair trial for a Black Panther in America. I didn’t believe that there could be even justice for a black man in America. And so my politics and the political ideology that we had kind of dictated that decision, based on all the other stuff that was happening, kind of, like, reinforced the belief.
JAY: Why do you say it’s a mistake then?
CONWAY: Well, it’s a mistake now because I do realize that we could have won that trial if we had have did a criminal–if we had have fought it as a criminal case instead of a political trial, we could have actually won the case.
JAY: Yeah, their evidence was very flimsy.
CONWAY: Yeah, well, they didn’t have any evidence. And the fact that we didn’t fight kind of allowed their lack of evidence to stand. When it–it’s like the thing about the identification of the police about where I lived. I mean, clearly all the evidence showed that I grew up, I went to school–I mean, I didn’t miss school–I went to school in East Baltimore, I went to–I worked from East Baltimore, all my employment records showed that I lived in East Baltimore. So, clearly this guy–
JAY: So this guy who’s saying he knows you from Baltimore was lying.
CONWAY: Was lying.
JAY: On appeal, why would inadequacy of counsel not have been a successful appeal? I assume you did appeal [crosstalk]
CONWAY: Yeah, we appealed and we appealed and we appealed. And like I say, in one particular case we even went to the Supreme Court.
I think you put–in 1970, the climate, you put Black Panther and police together in any kind of legal challenge and you always come out on the losing end. And we appealed, and the appeals were turned down for whatever–for minor reasons, for technical–and, actually, there wasn’t too many technical reasons, but we actually had cases where things was thrown out because they said, okay, that’s not framed right. And we go back and there’s another problem or something else. And I don’t think–and there’s a number of Black Panther political prisoners still in prison right now, and some of us had the best possible lawyers you could have. I mean, I’ve had the best lawyers in Baltimore in some cases.
JAY: On appeal.
CONWAY: On appeal. And you couldn’t get justice, because there was just a certain attitude. And, of course, that attitude was developed and formulated by COINTELPRO, we found out later, but at the time, we didn’t know. We just thought we was just getting, like, some racist breaks, some white supremacy acting out, just a miscarriage of justice taking place, which was kind of normal in the black community anyway.
JAY: Okay. We’re going to continue this discussion.
Much more detail, of course, about all of this–and quite beautifully written in many places–can be found in Eddie’s book Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther.
And here’s a pitch. Eddie’s going to make this book available as a premium. So for people that donate during this fund-raising campaign, or even afterwards, if you donate $10 a month or a $100 one-time gift, you’ll get the book.
And we’re going to continue this series of interviews in the next part. We’re going to talk about the whole issue of the Constitution. And we had an interesting panel (which you can see on The Real News) recently of whistleblowers who were talking about the loss of constitutional rights. And Eddie made an interesting point as a–commented at the place where he said, well, black people and Latinos and poor white working-class people, they’ve kind of known this for a long time, and you try to get organized, you don’t have much constitutional rights.
So we’re going to talk about more of that in the next segment with Eddie Conway on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.