Legal History

Chicago 7 Trial Sketches Spark Memories

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With his feet propped up, 1960s activist Abbie Hoffman reads a book. Blue-jeans-clad cohorts munch snacks and catch up on their sleep. No, this wasn’t some student-lounge gathering but one of Chicago’s most famous trials, at which at least one celebrity poet testified in Sanskrit.

Arrested after a violent confrontation between demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and Chicago police, the defendants in the so-called Chicago Seven trial that began on Sept. 24, 1969, did their best to put their own spin on the daily courtroom drama. Judge Julius Hoffman had the unenviable task of presiding over the turbulent trial, and at one point ordered that Black Panthers leader Bobby Seale—who was originally an eighth defendant—be bound and gagged, recounts the Chicago Tribune.

Five defendants were found guilty of intending to incite a riot, and all seven, as well as two defense lawyers, were given lengthy prison terms for contempt of court. However, an appeals court reversed all of their convictions in 1972. Among the reasons cited were the judge’s antagonistic behavior and FBI bugging of defense lawyers’ offices.

In addition to the media coverage that helped earn the Chicago Seven a place in legal history, 483 sketches by freelance artist Franklin McMahon depict the players in the courtroom farce. These trial illustrations have now been acquired by the Chicago History Museum, which already owns the judge’s trial papers and notes, the Tribune reports.

“This courtroom kind of became a theater for acting out all of those important issues of the day,” says Joy Bivins, the museum’s curator, citing the Vietnam War, civil rights and a youthful counterculture movement whose leaders saw themselves as pitted against an older generation of Americans. “One of the reasons why these illustrations are really important is because you can read page after page after page, but you are rarely going to get a chance to visualize all the actors involved in this kind of courtroom drama.”

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