Can I Get a Witness?

The Sky's the Limit examines show-stopping trials of the century.

Lise Pearlman has one question for you: “Can you imagine a forty-year ‘Free Huey’ movement and the impact it would’ve had?” There’s an entire alternative universe to explore behind the prompt posed by the author and retired judge — but if you’re not sure who Huey is and why he should be free, you’re not alone. The Sky’s the Limit: People v. Newton, The Real Trial of the 20th Century? was originally envisioned as a book about the great lawyers of California, and Pearlman’s research led her to Fay Stender, a Newton trial lawyer. Neither were familiar names any longer, and the book had little chance of seeing publication, so Pearlman switched tactics to focus on (in)famous trials themselves, to “refresh people’s minds about other trials, what made them important.” She winnowed down a list of so-called trials of the century after combing through innumerable polls, then researched them to let readers decide if Newton’s deserves to be the trial of the century. Pearlman continues the dialogue at Diesel (5433 College Ave., Oakland) on Thursday, May 31.

Big-ticket trials such as the 1920 White Sox World Series fix, the Scopes Monkey Trial, and trial of the Lindbergh baby killer get their own chapters; the O.J. Simpson trial gets a brief mention. Half the book is devoted to the trial of Huey P. Newton, the Oakland-born co-founder of the Black Panther Party charged with killing a police officer. Pearlman vividly recalls the 1968 trial, preceded by the Democratic Convention riots in Chicago, the deaths of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and the global violence that threatened to erupt if the revolutionary were convicted of murder. “The assumption,” Pearlman remembers, “was that he was going to be executed. If he dies, the sky’s the limit: That was the signal for the second American revolution to begin.” But the real question is, forty years later, why does no one remember it?

“I think what happened was it got eclipsed by the Chicago Seven trial … and at the time, the media was dominated by the white male perspective,” Pearlman said. “And as a consequence, the people who championed this case … were not in the mainstream.” If Newton had been convicted, maybe his trial would rank higher in lawyers’ and online voters’ lists. “But the same thing is true of O.J.,” Pearlman said, “so it’s not the results necessarily that dictate if the trial was significant.”

If, Pearlman’s logic goes, Newton were convicted of first-degree murder, “you would’ve had something more in the order of a Rodney King riot …. You’d have a very polarized society over the repercussions from that kind of violent eruption.” Due to California’s death-penalty law, Newton may have spent the rest of his life in jail. “Newton could have remained a movement star, an untarnished revolutionary hero for the rest of his life,” she theorized. His impact on black leaders could’ve been even greater. On the other hand, “I don’t think you’d have as many black mayors, senators, Congressmen … as you had over the rest of that century,” Pearlman said. If riots had followed the verdict, race relations in the country could’ve further deteriorated. Perhaps Obama would’ve never ascended to the presidency. The potential repercussions are staggering.

Ultimately, dramatic criminal trials reveal who we are as a civilization, Pearlman said, and “how important it is that even the most vilified defendant get a fair trial.” In some cases, they determine how good we are, and how far we’ve come.


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