California · Crime Scene Photography · Political

Men storm courthouse, take hostages to negotiate release of prisoners

August 7, 1970
Marin County, California
Jonathan Jackson (17) kidnaps Superior Court judge Harold Haley and other hostages in an attempt to negotiate the freedom of the Soledad brothers

The Soledad brothers were three black men accused of killing a white prison guard; the murder of the guard was allegedly in retribution for the shooting deaths of three other black prisoner days before. One of the men accused of killing the guard was George Jackson, Jonathan’s brother.

On August 7, Jackson entered the courtroom while Black Panther James McClain was on trial. Jackson watched the proceedings briefly before drawing a pistol he had concealed and tossing it to McClain. Jackson then produced an M1 carbine while McClain held the pistol to Judge Haley’s head. Witnesses held for testimony during McClain’s trial were freed and two of the men, Ruchell Magee and William A. Christmas, joined Jackson and McClain in the kidnapping.

Road flares meant to be mistaken for dynamite were placed around Judge Haley’s neck, but they were soon replaced by a sawed-off shotgun taped under the judge’s chin. Four more hostages — three jurors and deputy district attorney Gary Thomas — were bound with piano wire and taken as well. Though police had arrived at the scene, no action was taken immediately in an effort to prevent the injury or death of any of the hostages. When photographer Jim Kean arrived and began taking photographs, he was reportedly told “You take all the pictures you want. We are the revolutionaries.”

The kidnappers demanded the Soledad brothers be released by 12:30 and loaded the hostages into a van in preparation to escape via airplane. En route, McClain shot at police officers who pursued the van. Police fired back and, during the chaos, Prosecutor Thomas grabbed Jackson’s gun. A fire fight inside the van ensued leaving Judge Haley, Jackson, and two of the kidnappers dead, with Magee as the only Black Panther alive. Prosecutor Thomas was hit with a bullet in his spine, leaving him paralyzed, and one of the hostages received a gunshot wound to her arm.

Magee pleaded guilty to aggravated assault for his role in the kidnappings in return for dropping the murder charge for Judge Haley’s death. He was sentenced to life in prison.

In October of 1970, the courthouse was bombed by a group called the Weathermen, who considered themselves the new Left, Black Nationalists, Communists, and anti-imperialists. The group stated the attack, which caused heavy property damage but didn’t injure or kill anyone, was in retaliation for the deaths of Jackson and his accomplices.

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