Book Review: The Black Panthers and the Assassination
of Fred Hampton

Written by Hans Bennett
November 2, 2009
Toward Freedom

Reviewed: The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the
FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther, by
Jeffrey Haas, Published by Lawrence Hill Books, 424

On the morning of December 4, 1969, lawyer Jeffrey Haas
received a call from his partner at the People’s Law
Office, informing him that early that morning Chicago
police had raided the apartment of Illinois Black
Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton at 2337 West Monroe
Street in Chicago. Tragically, Hampton and fellow
Panther Mark Clark had both been shot dead, and four
other Panthers in the apartment had critical gunshot
wounds. Police were uninjured and had fired their guns
90-99 times. In sharp contrast, the Panthers had shot
once, from the shotgun held by Mark Clark, which had
most likely been fired after Clark had been fatally
shot in the heart and was falling to the ground.

Haas went straight to the police station to speak with
Hampton’s fiancée, Deborah Johnson, who was then eight
months pregnant with Hampton’s son. She had been
sleeping in bed next to Hampton when the police
attacked and began shooting into the apartment and
towards the bedroom where they were sleeping.
Miraculously, Johnson had not been shot, but her
account given to Haas was chilling. Throughout the
assault Hampton had remained unconscious (strong
evidence emerged later that a paid FBI informant had
given Hampton a sedative that prevented him from waking
up) and after police forced Johnson out of the bedroom,
two officers entered the room where Hampton still lay
unconscious. Johnson heard one officer ask, "Is he
still alive?" After two gunshots were fired inside the
room, the other officer said, "He’s good and dead now."

Jeffrey Haas’ account of this conversation with Johnson
jumps right out from the inside cover of his new book
entitled The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI
and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther, just
released. In this excellent new book, Haas gives his
personal account of defending the Panther survivors of
the December 4 police assault against the criminal
charges that were later dropped, and of filing a civil
rights lawsuit, Hampton v. Hanrahan, on behalf of the
survivors and the families of Mark Clark and Fred
Hampton. The civil rights lawsuit lasted for almost 13
years, but ended with a $1.85 million settlement paid
equally by the city, county, and federal governments.
This battle in the courtroom is a long and complex
story, but the 375-page book packs a punch and clearly
presents the legal complexities without watering down
Haas’ outrage about Hampton’s assassination and the
cover up that followed.

The Assassination of Fred Hampton

An autopsy conducted on Hampton by a doctor hired by
Haas and the People’s Law Office (PLO) confirmed
Deborah Johnson’s account about Hampton being shot
twice after she was forced out of the bedroom. Haas
reports that autopsy "found that both head wounds came
from the top right side of the head in a downward
direction...They were consistent with two shots to the
head at point blank range…The downward angles of the
bullets were inconsistent with the horizontal shots
that came through the wall from the front." Other than
these fatal bullet holes, the only physical marks on
Fred were a bullet found embedded in the exterior of
his shoulder and a graze wound in his leg. In two
separate tests that were part of this same autopsy a
high dosage of the barbiturate Seconal was found--
enough to make Hampton unconscious or very drowsy.

At 4am on December 4, Cook County prosecutor Edward
Hanrahan and 14 Chicago police officers assigned to
Hanrahan had been armed with shotguns, handguns, and a
.45 caliber machine gun. The raiders were officially
carrying out a search warrant, looking for weapons, but
suspiciously did not arrive at 8pm the night before
when they knew the apartment was empty. Following the
attack, Hanrahan and police publicly claimed to have
been under heavy fire from the Panthers, and that
Panthers had first fired on them through the front
door. The actual evidence at the crime scene proved
otherwise, and Chicago Panthers and supporters
immediately mobilized to expose the police lies.

Hampton’s apartment had been left unguarded, so the
Panthers went inside to examine the scene alongside
videographers who later released their footage in the
1971 documentary film entitled The Murder of Fred
Hampton. The apartment was opened to the public, and
the media was urged to come and see for themselves that
there was only one bullet in the wall (from Mark
Clark’s shotgun) that could have been fired from the
direction the Panthers were facing towards the front
door. In contrast, there were 90-99 bullets in the
walls that had been shot inward from the direction of
the front door where police entered.

A county grand jury indicted each of the seven Panther
survivors for attempted murder, armed violence, and
other weapons charges, but all these charges would
later be dropped. Hanrahan and police were first
exonerated from any misconduct by the police Internal
Investigations Division. Next, a coroner’s inquest
found Hampton and Clark’s deaths were "justifiable
homicide." A federal grand jury, led by deputy attorney
general Jerris Leonard investigated whether Hanrahan
and police had violated the civil rights of the
Panthers inside 2337 West Monroe Street. However, in
May 1970, the federal grand jury issued a 132-page
report, but no indictments. Furthermore, Haas writes
that the report "never sought to determine who fired
the fatal shots, where they were from, or whether they
were fired deliberately to murder Fred." Following
public pressure, in June 1970 a special prosecutor,
Barnabas Sears, was appointed by Cook County’s Chief
Criminal Court Judge Joseph Power. In July 1972, this
criminal trial for conspiracy to obstruct justice began
before Judge Philip Romiti. In November that year, all
defendants were found not guilty.

After the federal grand jury’s ruling in May 1970 that
exonerated Hanrahan and others, they decided to file
the civil rights lawsuit. At the meeting where the
lawyers, December 4 survivors, and family members of
Hampton and Clark made their decision, Clark’s mother
Fannie expressed how they all were feeling, saying "We
can’t just do nothing. Mark and Fred should still be
alive. I want to bring their killers to trial."
Reflecting back, Haas explains why the lawsuit was an
important legal strategy as well. "In civil cases,
extensive discovery is allowed. We could get to cross-
examine all the defendants under oath at depositions,
with court reporters recording what they said. The
contradictions between Hanrahan’s and the raiders’
account, and the physical evidence made the prospect of
confronting the defendants a trial lawyer’s dream…we
needed to write the complaint to combine the claims of
the survivors and the deceased into one lawsuit against
all the perpetrators…The legal construct we had found
was to charge all the actors in a conspiracy to act
together. That way we combined Hanrahan, [Hanrahan’s
assistant, Richard] Jalovec, the fourteen raiders, the
crime lab people, and those who falsified the
investigation…In May of 1970 we filed our complaint. We
had no idea we were embarking on a 13-year battle,"
writes Haas.

The joint-civil suit was assigned to a right-wing judge
named Joseph Sam Parry, who threw out their entire
complaint on February 3, 1972. They appealed to the
Seventh Circuit Court and on August 4, 1973, the Court
overturned Parry, and sent it back for a new trial.
Unfortunately, they were unable to get a new judge, and
throughout the subsequent 18-month trial, Parry was
extremely biased and blocked all kinds of testimony and
evidence from being entered into the record. The jury
was deadlocked, but instead of declaring a mistrial,
Parry himself ruled to dismiss the case entirely. Haas
and PLO’s subsequent appeal of Parry’s ruling to the
Seventh Circuit was successful, and the case was sent
back down to the district court for a new trial.
Fortunately, this time they got a new judge, who urged
the defendants to make a settlement before starting a
new trial. Finally, on February 28, 1983, the
settlement was made, and Hampton et al. received $1.85
million from the city, county, and federal governments.

COINTELPRO and Fred Hampton

The FBI’s top-secret and illegal counterintelligence
program dubbed "COINTELPRO" became public after a 1971
break-in to the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania by
unknown antiwar activists. These activists discovered
these explosive documents that revealed an FBI war on
the civil rights and later Black liberation movements,
and quickly made them public. Among these liberated
files was a March 3, 1968 COINTELPRO memo discussing
the urgent need to prevent "the beginning of a true
black revolution." Among several of the program’s goals
was to "prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could
unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist
movement". This "Black Nationalist-Hate Groups" memo
refers to Martin Luther King (long a target of the FBI)
as a potential "messiah" of the supposedly hateful and
"violent" Black liberation movement.

This same document stated: "Through counterintelligence
it should be possible to pinpoint potential
troublemakers and neutralize them." Another stated goal
was "to prevent the long-range growth of militant black
nationalist organizations, especially among youth.
Specific tactics to prevent these groups from
converting young people must be developed." One
specific tactical approach was expressed in an April 3,
1968 communique arguing that "The Negro youth and
moderates must be made to understand that if they
succumb to revolutionary teaching, they will be dead

In terms of scale, the FBI’s war of repression against
the Black liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s
was greatest against the Panthers. In addressing why
the Panthers were targeted so intensely by COINTELPRO,
Noam Chomsky wrote in 1973: "A top secret Special
Report for the president in June 1970 gives some
insight into the motivations for the actions undertaken
by the government to destroy the Black Panther Party.
The report describes the party as ‘the most active and
dangerous black extremist group in the United States.’
Its ‘hard core members’ were estimated at 800, but ‘a
recent poll indicates that approximately 25 percent of
the black population has a great respect for the BPP,
including 43 percent of blacks under 21 years of age.’
On the basis of such estimates of the potential of the
party, the repressive apparatus of the state proceeded
against it to ensure that it did not succeed in
organizing as a substantial social or political force."

When these liberated COINTELPRO files became public,
Haas, PLO, and his Panther clients immediately
suspected that the Dec. 4 police raid had been part of
this program, and that the FBI had viewed Hampton as a
potential "messiah," who needed to be "neutralized." As
part of their civil rights lawsuit, they filed numerous
motions requesting all FBI files relating to the
Illinois Panthers and COINTELPRO. After repeated
attempts by the defendants and Judge Parry to cover up
the FBI role, eventually a few explosive documents were
made available.

One document showed a drawing made by the FBI’s paid
informant, William O’Neal, which provided the floor
plan of Hampton’s apartment. The FBI had supplied this
diagram to prosecutor Edward Hanrahan before he led the
raid several days later. Following the raid, the FBI
paid O’Neal a special bonus to thank him for providing
the diagram.

Another document surfaced showing that the FBI had made
a deal with deputy attorney general Jerris Leonard, who
led the 1970 federal grand jury investigation. In an
effort to conceal the FBI’s role and the still-secret
COINTELPRO, they decided that the criminal charges
would be dropped against the seven Panther survivors,
and in exchange the federal grand jury would rule in
favor of Hanrahan and the police raiders.

A third explosive document showed a fake letter sent to
Jeff Fort, the leader of the Blackstone Rangers, which
accused the Panthers of planning a "hit" on Fort. The
FBI hoped that the fake letter would incite Fort and
the Rangers to "take retaliatory action" against
Hampton and the Panthers.

As this new documentation emerged, the FBI was added to
the list of defendants for the civil rights lawsuit,
and making the FBI pay 1/3 of the $1.85 million was a
key part of the settlement.

Defending the Carbondale Six and the Attica Brothers

Haas was fresh out of law school when he first met Fred
Hampton and was asked to work as a lawyer for the many
Panther defendants that were victims of repression.
Haas and several other young radical lawyers
collectively opened the People’s Law Office (PLO) in
Chicago and began defending Panthers, as well as Puerto
Rican political prisoners, antiwar protesters, prisoner
activists, and other revolutionary groups like Students
for a Democratic Society, the Young Lords, and the
Young Patriots. Alongside Haas’ account of working
specifically on the Hampton case, he also reflects on
many of the other struggles from that era that he
became involved with, illustrating how Hampton’s
assassination did not happen in a vacuum.

For example, on November 12, 1970, there was a shootout
between police and Panthers in the southern Illinois
town of Carbondale. In the middle of the night, police
attacked a house being rented by Panthers, and as
neighbors would testify at trial, police began to shoot
into their house without any warning. In response, the
Panthers inside the house shot back, and in the end,
bullets had struck two Panthers and one police officer,
but no one had been killed. One of the occupants of the
Panther house, Milton Boyd, told Haas that "we were
prepared to defend ourselves…We weren’t going to be
ambushed and killed like our brothers in Chicago."

The six Panther defendants were each charged with seven
counts of attempted murder and became known as the
"Carbondale Six." Haas and the PLO defended them by
arguing first that it was impossible to identify who in
the house was actually shooting, and second that since
the police began shooting at them first, unannounced,
in the middle of the night, the Panthers acted in
legitimate self-defense by shooting back. In a stunning
victory, an all-white jury found the defendants
innocent of all charges.

Haas writes that during the Carbondale Six trial, he
and two other PLO lawyers drove to Mount Vernon,
Illinios to attend the memorial service for the
legendary Panther and prison author George Jackson, who
two days earlier, had been shot and killed by San
Quentin Prison guards, on August 21, 1971. Haas
reflects on how at the service, they spoke with
Jackson’s mother. Georgia, who "urged the three of us
to continue fighting to keep black people, particularly
Panthers, out of jail. I went back to the trial feeling
blessed and inspired."

Haas writes that "Jackson’s death resulted in work
stoppages, memorial services, and teach-ins at prisons
throughout the country. The men inside Attica
Correctional Facility in New York declared a day of
silence during which no one spoke. They also stepped up
their demands for humane treatment and set a timetable
for the administration to meet with them." These pleas
were ignored, and on September 9, 1971, twelve hundred
prisoners seized control over a quarter of Attica. Haas
recounts that "the prisoners took thirty-nine guards
hostage and demanded to meet with Commissioner Russell
Oswald and that Warden Mancusi be fired…I watched the
confrontation on television, moved by the bravery of
the mostly Black and Latino prisoners and by the
reasonableness of what they sought…While the prison
administration said it would comply with some of the
demands, they were adamant about no amnesty for the
rebellious prisoners. The prisoners who led the
takeover would be criminally prosecuted. A deadlocked
loomed. Tensions grew."

On September 13, Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered
the state police to go in with their guns firing, and
ultimately twenty-nine prisoners and ten hostages were
shot dead, with many more wounded. When the National
Lawyers Guild put out a call for lawyers to visit
Attica, Hass and others at PLO responded. The first
prisoner they interviewed was Frank "Big Black" Smith,
who recounted the horrors of the police massacre and
torture of prisoners for days following the massacre.
Smith was a key figure in the prisoners’ revolt and had
been appointed to head of security for the yard, which
included protecting the hostages. Smith explained that
"the hostages got the same food and water as everyone
else, and we didn’t let anyone bother them. No one got
near them without my permission. We even shared our
blankets with them." When the state police attacked
"the hostages were shot down like dogs, like the rest
of us. The troopers had all the guns. It was a
slaughter and they didn’t care who they hit," said

The horror continued after the state police and prison
authorities regained control. With tears in his eyes,
Smith recounted how "the guards stripped us naked after
the shooting. Then they made us crawl naked in the mud
through a gauntlet where they beat us…They took me out
of the line. They made me lie on a table naked on my
back and put a football under my chin. They put their
burning cigarettes out on me. Some dropped them from
the catwalk above and were laughing. They told me if I
moved and the football hit the ground I was dead. I
tried not to move. I was sure they were going to kill
me. They knew I was in charge of security and used me
as an example to scare everyone else, because nobody
else got this treatment."

The accounts of other prisoners interviewed by Haas,
PLO, and other lawyers reinforced Smith’s heart-
wrenching story. After returning to Chicago, Haas
worked to publicize these accounts, but soon returned
to working mostly on the Hampton case while his PLO
colleagues continued to work with other lawyers in
defending the 60 indicted prisoners, who became known
as the "Attica Brothers."

They Got Away With Murder

Certainly, the $1.85 million lawsuit was only a partial
victory. No amount of money can replace the lives of
Hampton and Clark, or heal the gunshot injuries that
several of the Panther survivors still suffer from
today. Furthermore, it is painful to accept that none
of the conspirators were ever convicted of any criminal
charges, nor were they forced to pay for the settlement
out of their own pockets. However, the scale of victory
should not be judged by the settlement money alone. On
the last page of the book, Haas describes a 2008 visit
with Iberia Hampton shortly after her husband Francis
had passed away. He asked her "after all these years,
what do you think our lawsuit proved?" Without
hesitation Iberia replied, "They got away with murder."

Indeed, they did get away with murder. In this context,
the victorious civil rights lawsuit has been used to
further expose and document this stark injustice. Many
COINTELPRO files were made public because of the
lawsuit, and the numerous conspirators were put under
some scrutiny for the public to see. Today, if we learn
anything from this story, it’s that we should have no
illusions about how far the government is willing to go
in repressing dissent and then covering it up. Also,
the courtroom victory that was fought against all odds
should inspire activists today who are working around
issues of state repression and political prisoners. We
can win, and we should never give up the fight.


For more information, see this 1971 film "The Murder of
Fred Hampton.


Hans Bennett is an independent multi-media journalist
and co-founder of Journalists for Mumia Abu-Jamal. He
has written for numerous publications, including
Alternet, ColorLines, Upside Down World, Z Magazine,
Dissident Voice, and Toward Freedom.