In 1970s Chicago, a case like this one would be unprecedented — though equally defiant. James Earl Ray was charged with assassinating Martin Luther King Jr. at a motel near Chicago’s Lincoln Park. Many argue that his “confession” in 1977 to the FBI agents who interrogated him, under threat of torture, was coerced, and the confession was coerced.
And yet, for a time in American law, white guilt and profound racial fear led prosecutors to reach for his confession. Defense lawyers have made this case all the more complex, because they succeeded in compelling evidence that the government had covered up extensive civilian surveillance of the motel, at a time when the federal government charged that the motel was a “redeemed ‘terrorist haven.’”
So The Trial of the Chicago 7 is not quite a documentary. In a great work of sociological reportage, Mr. Scott uses archival footage to reveal the arrest of six young black activists, among them the activist H. Rap Brown and the poet Faubus, both of whom were arrested without cause, and for misdemeanors like sleeping in a public place. Then he moves forward to explore the “sub-plot” of the trial — the behind-the-scenes effort by a number of prosecutors to use the procedure of “disposition” to secure Ray’s confession.
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