Marin County courthouse incident

Marin County courthouse incident

The Marin County courthouse incident[nb 1] was an event which occurred on August 7, 1970, when African American radical 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 who owned some of the weapons used in the breakout.



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 African American prisoners were shot dead at Soledad by white corrections officer Opie G. Miller. Nolen was among the slain, along with Cleveland Edwards, then twenty one, who had been convicted in 1967 for assaulting a police offer; and Alvin Miller, then twenty three, 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 fifteen 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 twenty-three, who was serving time for assault and perjury, was injured and lost a testicle, but did not die.[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 fifteen 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, thirteen African American 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 acquitted 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, three days after the shootings,[5] prison guard John Vincent Mills, then twenty six, 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 African American inmates were charged with this retaliatory 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 revolutionary African-American Marxist group targeting what it believed to be the white racist infrastructure of the prison system.[7]

Escalating Racial Violence

Following the January 13th 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 [8]

On July 23, 1970, another white guard, William H. Shull, age forty, 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 7th, 1970

On August 7, 1970, Jonathan Jackson brought three guns registered to political activist and former UCLA professor Angela Davis[10] into the Marin County Hall of Justice, where Judge Haley was presiding over the trial of San Quentin inmate James McClain, who was accused of stabbing a prison guard while serving a sentence for burglary.[11]

Jackson sat among the spectators for a few minutes before opening his satchel, drawing a pistol and throwing it to McClain. He then produced a carbine from his raincoat as McClain held the pistol against Judge Haley's head. Jackson was reported as saying "Freeze. Just Freeze. We don't intend to hurt anybody." 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 Judge Haley's chambers.[12]

After being freed by McGee, a fourth man, William A. Christmas joined the other three kidnappers. Haley was forced at gunpoint to call the sheriff Louis P. Montarnos, in the hopes of convincing the police to refrain from intervening. Road flares, which were used to simulate sticks of dynamite, were held against his 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.[12][13]

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 bailiff.[11][13] 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.[12]

The group then entered the elevator, informing the police that "[they wanted] the Soledad brothers freed by 12:30 today." [12] Upon exiting the building there was a brief burst of gunfire, which one of the female hostages claimed was initiated by the police with the kidnappers returning fire. The kidnappers then forced the hostages into a rented Ford panel truck[11] which they began to drive towards an exit leading to the U.S. 101 freeway.[12] According to Black Panther party member, Kiilu Nyasha, "The plan was to use the hostages to take over a radio station and broadcast the racist, murderous prison conditions and demand the immediate release of the Soledad Brothers."[10][14]

The police had set up a road block outside of the civic center in anticipation of the group, and according to the majority of eyewitnesses, began to open fire on the van.[11] A shootout resulted, in which Jackson, McClain and Christmas were killed and McGee was seriously injured. Haley was also slain from the discharge of the shotgun. Thomas was seriously wounded in his back, leaving him wheelchair bound,[15] and Graham suffered a wound to her arm.[13]


Following the events of August 7, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Angela Davis, to whom the guns used in the incident were registered. After evading authorities for over two months, Davis was arrested in New York City. She was then charged as an accomplice to conspiracy, kidnapping, and homicide. In 1972, she was tried and found not guilty on all counts.

Ruchell Magee pled guilty to the charge of aggravated kidnapping for his part in the assault. He later attempted unsuccessfully to withdraw his plea, and was sentenced in 1975 to life in prison.[16] 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 Weatherman (organization) later claimed responsibility for the action, which was carried out in retaliation for the killing of Jackson and the other abductors.[17]

In 1971, three days before he was to go on trial for the Mills' murder, George Jackson was shot in the prison yard of San Quentin during a riotous escape attempt. Officials claim that Jackson had smuggled a 9 mm 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 children.[18]

See also


  1. ^ Other names include Marin County courthouse shooting, Civic Center shootout or the San Rafael shootout


  1. ^ a b c d Yee, Min Sun (April, 1973). "Death on the Yard: The Untold Killings at Soledad & San Quentin". Ramparts (magazine): 36–40. 
  2. ^ a b "Negro Prisoners begin hunger strike in bid for investigation". The Bulletin. January 15, 1970.,3541718&dq. 
  3. ^ a b "Guard At Soledad Shoots, Kills Three Brawling Convicts In Yard". Lodi News-Sentinel. January 14, 1970.,1208136&dq. 
  4. ^ Associated Press (January 14, 1970). "Guard Kills 3 Prisoners in California". The Milwaukee Journal.,2227238&dq. 
  5. ^ "Prison Guard Is Beaten to Death". Beaver County Times. January 17, 1970.,3871188&dq. 
  6. ^ Maloney, Willey (September 29, 1970). "Soledad Prison Wracked by Violence". The Deseret News.,6964144&dq. 
  7. ^ Herrera, Nico. "Prison Offenders: Black Guerilla Family". 
  8. ^ "Tear Gas Used to Free Guards". The Bulletin. March 17, 1970.,907236&dq. 
  9. ^ Associated Press (July 29, 1970). "Convict is Found Slain at Soledad". The Modesto Bee.,7158154&dq. 
  10. ^ a b Millies, Stephen (August 3, 2009). "Long live the spirit of Jonathan Jackson". Workers World Newspaper. 
  11. ^ a b c d "Justice: A Bad Week for the Good Guys". TIME. August 17, 1970.,9171,909547-1,00.html. 
  12. ^ a b c d e "Four Are Killed As Escape Attempt Fails". Reading Eagle. August 8, 1970.,3984840&dq=jonathan+jackson&hl=en. 
  13. ^ a b c Associated Press (August 8, 1970). "Courtroom Escape Attempt/Convicts, Trial Judge Slain". Sarasota Herald. 
  14. ^ Nyasha, Kiilu (August 3, 2009). "Black August 2009: A story of African freedom fighters". San Francisco Bay View. 
  15. ^ Associated Press (November 11, 1971). "He's On The Job Though Paralyzed". Spartanburg Herald-Journal. 
  16. ^ Associated Press (January 23, 1975). "Magee Gets Life Term". The Milwaukee Journal.,1130057&dq=ruchell+magee&hl=en. 
  17. ^ Alderman, Jeffery D. (October 9, 1970). "New York Courthouse Bombed: Radicals Claim Responsibility". Kentucky New Era.,790062&dq=weathermen+marin+courthouse+bombing&hl=en. 
  18. ^ "Parents File Suit". The Bulletin. January 13, 1971.,3702318&dq=cleveland+edwards+prison&hl=en. 

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