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2007-01-26

Murder Charges Against Former Black Panthers Based on Confessions Extracted by Torture

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Police in California, New York and Florida arrested eight former Black Panthers earlier this week on charges related to the 1971 killing of a San Francisco police officer. Charges were thrown out in 1974 after it was revealed police used torture to extract confessions in the case. We speak with two of the defendants’ attorneys. [includes rush transcript]

Police in California, New York and Florida arrested eight former Black Panthers earlier this week on charges related to the 1971 killing of a San Francisco police officer. Richard Brown, Richard O’Neal, Ray Boudreaux and Henry Watson Jones were arrested in California. Francisco Torres was arrested in Queens New York. Harold Taylor was arrested in Florida. Two men already in jail— Herman Bell and Jalil Muntaqim — were also charged. A ninth man — Ronald Stanley Bridgeforth — is still being sought. The men were charged with the murder of Sgt. John Young and conspiracy to commit murder for a string of attacks on other officers.

Harold Taylor and two other men were first charged with the murder of the police sergeant in 1975. But a judge tossed out the charges. Taylor and his two co-defendants said they made false confessions after police in New Orleans tortured them.

Joining me now are two attorneys involved in this case:

  • Michael Warren. Attorney for Francisco Torres who was arrested on Tuesday.
  • Stuart Hanlon. California-based attorney representing Herman Bell. He also worked for 25 years on the case of Black Panther leader Geronimo Pratt.
  • Excerpt of the new documentary Legacy of Torture: The War Against the Black Liberation Movement. Produced by the Freedom Archives.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Joining me now are two attorneys who are involved in this case. Stuart Hanlon is in San Francisco. Michael Warren is with me here in New York. Stuart Hanlon represents Herman Bell, and Michael Warren represents Francisco Torres. Michael Warren, let’s start with this latest news of the arrests.

MICHAEL WARREN: Yes. Mr. Torres was arrested at the first part of this week at his home in Queens and taken to court — actually he was taken initially to the 1 Police Plaza, then taken to court, where he appeared on an extradition warrant — the initial stages of an extradition warrant hearing. Extradition was not waived. We are fighting extradition, and we are now awaiting a governor’s warrant, which is supposed to be produced by the state of California. The case has been adjourned to March 6 for the production of the governor’s warrant.

AMY GOODMAN: Stuart Hanlon, the background on this case? I mean, we’re talking about a police killing in 1971. This is well over 30 years later.

STUART HANLON: Well, the background pretty much is, the case occurred — you know, it was a pretty awful crime. It was the assassination of a policeman who was sitting in a station. But the point was they didn’t have any evidence, and they investigated and they tortured witnesses in New Orleans. They tortured defendants, and cases were thrown out because of torture. And people have to understand this is actual torture with cattle prods by New Orleans policemen, where San Francisco policemen were sitting outside the room, obviously knowing what was going on to get information. And we’ve learned certainly in the last couple years around the world, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, torture doesn’t lead to the truth. It leads to what the torturers want to hear. And that’s where they got false statements, false confessions, and judges across the country threw these statements out for various reasons, the bottom line being torture, and the case seemed to have ended. They couldn’t find the people who had actually done the crime. And that’s the background, where the police started investigating again pretty seriously about five or six years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play for a moment an excerpt of a new documentary called Legacy of Torture: The War Against the Black Liberation Movement. It was produced by the Freedom Archives. The documentary includes interviews with Harold Taylor and John Bowman, about being tortured by police in New Orleans, as well as dramatized scenes depicting the abuse they suffered. Taylor was arrested Tuesday for the killing of the San Francisco police officer. Police allege the late Bowman was also involved in the killing. He died in December. This excerpt begins with Harold Taylor.

HAROLD TAYLOR: I was in there for maybe five minutes, when the door opened. Three police officers of New Orleans came in, dragging me out by my heels, took me to a chair, where they handcuffed me to the chair and handcuffed my ankles, my feet, to the bottom part of the chair. Without asking any questions, they commenced beating me. They beat me, they punched me, they kicked me, they spit on me. They called me a lot of vile names. And then they told me that they was going to kill me if I didn’t cooperate with them.

JOHN BOWMAN: The New Orleans Police Department would come into the room. A hot blanket would be taken from the bucket, dripping, hot and wet, placed over my head, held there for — I can’t say whether it was minutes or seconds. It felt like forever.

HAROLD TAYLOR: They came out with a plastic bag, put it over my head, and they started beating me with the bag over my head. About the time I was about to lose consciousness, about to pass out, they would snatch the bag off, and while I’m trying to catch my breath, they would start beating me again. So I asked them, I said, "Well, what do you want?" You know, they just continued to go on whipping. They didn’t ask me any more questions. They didn’t ask any questions, really.

Then, they came out with this cattle prod. I knew what it was, because being off of a farm when I was a kid. My family used to go to Louisiana every year to work on the family farm, and my uncles, they had a couple — we had some cows, and they used cattle prods to move those cows up chutes and stuff like that. So I’d seen that, and I knew what it was.

JOHN BOWMAN: The cattle prod was placed on my genitals, placed in my [expletive]hole, placed under my feet, placed under my arms.

HAROLD TAYLOR: Down on my private parts, under my neck, behind my ears, down my back. I think I passed out one time, and they woke me back up, and they had taken me to another room. Two detectives had me by one arm — by each arm, and a detective came out of nowhere and he just cold-cocked me and knocked — I mean, he knocked me straight out. I was unconscious.

JOHN BOWMAN: Another instrument that was used during the questioning was a ledger law book, and this ledger law book was used to hit me upside my head at times when I was not giving the right answers that was script for me.

HAROLD TAYLOR: They took me to a holding cell. They threw water on me. I was soaking wet. It was cold. Pulled me out of there, maybe by 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning, and told me they had somebody they wanted me to talk to and I better cooperate, and if I didn’t, I was going to get more of the same. So they put me in there. There was two detectives from San Francisco. I later found out it was McCoy and Erdelatz. They started asking me questions. They told me they had a script. I’m sure I saw a recorder there, too. And they was reading to me about what they said took place in San Francisco. I told them I had no knowledge of it.

It was back again with the plastic bag. This time they had a blanket. I don’t know what they soaked it in, but it was really, really hot, and they just covered me with that blanket and put that plastic bag over my head. And I couldn’t scream, I couldn’t holler. I couldn’t get my hands up to poke a hole in the bag, because I was handcuffed to the chair and my legs were tied to the chair. And they kicked the chair over and let me just suffocate. I was just about to pass out. They would snatch it off, spit in my face, and they left me sitting there for a little while.

McCoy and Erdelatz, they started asking me questions. I had no knowledge of the things they were asking me, so I couldn’t answer them, you know. So they said, "Well, we’ll" — they turned off the recorder or whatever they had and said, "We’ll tell you what happened. And then after we tell you, this is what we want you to say."

JOHN BOWMAN: So I did make statements. I did waive my rights to an attorney, which means I waived my Miranda rights. I did all of this because of the physical aggression and the brutality that was being put upon my body.

HAROLD TAYLOR: One got behind me, and he took his hands and he slapped them like that over my ears. I couldn’t hear nothing. My ears were just ringing so bad. I could feel fluid running down the side of my face. And they were talking to me, but I couldn’t hear them. All I could her was the ringing. Whenever they stood me up to make me walk, I couldn’t walk. They had to just kind of just carry me back into the other room. And when they’d get me back in there, they would start again. And they beat, and they beat, and they beat. Then Erdelatz and McCoy would come back in, and they would kind of grin and laugh. They were all laughing. They thought it was a lot of fun. I was a big joke. They started asking me questions, so I started talking to them, telling them just like they — I followed their whole script. Everything they told me to say, I said it just like — whatever Ruben told them, I repeated what Ruben said.

AMY GOODMAN: Former Black Panthers, Harold Taylor, who was just arrested, and John Bowman, who died in December. This, an excerpt of a new documentary called Legacy of Torture: The War Against the Black Liberation Movement, produced by the Freedom Archives.

Stuart Hanlon, I wanted to ask you about court papers filed in the case that were released Thursday, indicating a fingerprint on a cigarette lighter, shotgun shells, an informant helped to lead to the arrests this week. An affidavit filed with the court said in 2004 an FBI investigator matched five of the fifteen shotgun cells recovered from the crime scene to spent shells recovered from a shotgun found at Herman Bell’s New Orleans home in '73. But police are now saying they have since lost the shotgun allegedly found at Bell's house. Your response?

STUART HANLON: It’s fabricated evidence. What they’re really saying is, "We found a gun in Herman Bell’s house, and we took it to New Orleans, and we test fired it, and we sent the shells to San Francisco 30 years ago, and all of a sudden we found out they match. But you can’t test it — you can’t test the truth of our allegations, because we lost the gun, we lost the paperwork, we lost the proof of where we got it, we lost everything but the result. And just trust us that we’re not biased, that we’re fair, that we’re going to produce real evidence in court. Trust us." And it’s a joke. It really was for the media and the public, and not for court, because —

AMY GOODMAN: The San Francisco Chronicle is reporting that ex-Black Panther, Ruben Scott, is expected to testify against the arrested men. He was arrested with Harold Taylor and John Bowman in '73 in New Orleans. In the mid-'70s, Scott said he only agreed to speak to the police after he was repeatedly tortured. Can you talk more about Scott and his expected testimony?

STUART HANLON: Yeah. Ruben Scott was tortured in the same way Bowman and Taylor were. They tortured him and broke him. He wouldn’t testify at first, and then they went and got him again and threatened him on a case in New York. And he agreed finally, as a broken man and a tortured soul, who had been the victim of torture, to testify. We have statements from him that media took and he gave to lawyers, where he contradicted everything he was going to say in court, where he said he said it because he was tortured. And in the document you talked about, they admit he was tortured, so I don’t think we’re ready in San Francisco to convict somebody or a group of people, where there are political motivations for the case on a witness who’s been the victim of torture, so that’s not —

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Warren, we’re going to end with you. We only have a minute, but the larger context here, and can you talk about Counterintelligence Program?

MICHAEL WARREN: I certainly can. People ask the question, why pick up these men after they’ve been around, have not attempted to elude the authorities, have led productive lives all these years? The reason why is simply this: there are two questions that [inaudible] instructed. John Ashcroft, shortly after he was appointed the Attorney General, made a vow and a promise that he was going to go after as many ex-Black Panthers as he possibly could. And that’s when this program was instituted. With respect to the Ingleside shooting and the killing of the police officer there, there was an attempt many years ago to lift a latent fingerprint. A latent fingerprint was lifted off of a lighter. There was an attempt to match it to my client, Francisco Torres, and a number of other people. Negative results. And those attempts continued all the way up until 2002. And the fingerprint technician said that he lost the —- when he checked the card, Francisco Torres, it was the wrong fingerprint card. So we have a lot of inconsistencies, but the most recent -—

AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds.

MICHAEL WARREN: The most recent reason, it relates to retaliation. These men, after being tortured, and after the grand jury ended in 2006, went on the road with the Center for Constitutional Rights and talked about their torture, and we have seen some of that. And that’s what this case is about.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Warren, Stuart Hanlon, thanks for joining us.

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