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The Assassination of Fred Hampton -- a Book Review

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Book Review: The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther, by Jeffrey Haas, published by Lawrence Hill Books (November, 2009).

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(In this photo, reminiscent of the photos of southern lynchings, smiling police carry away Fred Hampton's body)

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 fiance'e, 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."

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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 today. In this excellent new book, Haas gives his personal account of defending the Panther survivors of the Dec. 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 PLO confirmed Deborah Johnson's account about Hampton being shot twice after she was forced out of the bedroom. Haas reports that the 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 Dec. 4, CookCounty 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.

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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 CookCounty'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, Dec. 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.

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Hans Bennett is a multi-media journalist mostly focusing on the movement to free Mumia Abu-Jamal and all political prisoners. An archive of his work is available at and he is also co-founder of "Journalists for Mumia," (more...)

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The Assassination of Fred Hampton -- a Book Review