“American Justice on Trial” chronicles the extraordinary paradigm-changing trial in which Black Panthers co-founder Huey P. Newton faced the death penalty for killing a white policeman in a pre-dawn car stop in 1968 Oakland. At his trial, Newton and his maverick defense team led by Charles Garry and his then rare female co-counsel Fay Stender defended the Panthers as a response to 400 years of racism and accused the policemen of racial profiling, insisting Newton had only acted in self-defense. Their unprecedented challenges to structural racism in the jury selection process were revolutionary and risky. If the Newton jury came back with the widely expected first degree murder verdict against the charismatic Black militant, Newton would have faced the death penalty and national riots were anticipated. But Newton’s defense team redefined a “jury of one’s peers,” and a groundbreaking diverse jury headed by pioneering Black foreman David Harper delivered a shocking verdict that still reverberates today. Trailer and Website: https://justicemovie.com
“American Justice on Trial” took nine years to complete and includes historical footage and interviews with key participants involved in the Panthers movement and in the trial itself. In addition to jury foreman Harper and Huey’s brother Melvin Newton, interviewees include Bay Area reporter Belva Davis, defense attorney John Burris, retired federal judge Thelton Henderson, retired Oakland police chief George Hart, Panther communications secretary Kathleen Cleaver, and Bryan Stevenson — founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.
“The Newton trial was monumental in the process of addressing racism in the jury selection process,” said co-director Herb Ferrette. “So, in a way, the trial put racism itself on the stand. And that was groundbreaking for the time.”
Co-director and producer Andrew Abrahams adds: “George Floyd was a tipping point, but racial profiling and excessive force against Black people by police has been a reality in the U.S. for decades. It was the fulcrum of the 1968 Huey Newton trial which our film depicts, and which the Black Panthers — co-founded by Newton — rallied against. The great lesson from People v. Newton is the importance of diversity among all players in the criminal justice system, including police, juries, attorneys, and judges.