American Justice on Trial

People v. Newton

Non-Fiction - Historical
540 Pages
Reviewed on 08/04/2018
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Author Biography

I wrote this book as a companion to our nonprofit film project of the same name --"American Justice on Trial: People v. Newton" which has since won the Berkeley Film Foundation 2017 Al Bendich award for film projects on civil rights. The book incorporates quotes from all the surviving participants and observers of that 1968 trial we filmed for the documentary. Our hope is to have both the finished film and book available for educational institutions across the country. More info about the ongoing film project at www.americanjusticeontrial.com.

    Book Review

Reviewed by Ruffina Oserio for Readers' Favorite

American Justice on Trial: People v. Newton by Lise Pearlman presents the trial of Huey Newton in a cleverly constructed style, filling readers in on the drama, the jury selection, and the outcome of the trial. Besides focusing on the Newton trial, the author makes comparative studies with other cases, taking readers through a wide selection of case histories and uncovering the discrepancies in the justice system while underlining the glaring racial divide that has become part of the challenging social issues in American history. The author offers powerful insights into the birth of the Black Panther Party and answers the question: How relevant is the trial that put a black revolutionary on trial for his life in 1968 to the contemporary justice system in America?

The first thing that caught my attention when I started reading this book is the author’s voice — it is clear, powerful, and confident. And the reason is very simple: Lise Pearlman did her research well and she knows what she is talking about. The book features very compelling characters associated with the trial, including the prosecutor Lowell Jensen, TV journalist Belva Davis, the first black foreman David Harper, the defendant’s older brother, Melvin Newton, members of the Black Panther Party and a lot more. The writing is very professional and accessible. American Justice on Trial: People v. Newton demonstrates how a controversial and internationally watched case transformed the jury selection process, and highlights the racial tensions that have rocked American society over the years. It is a compelling read, laced with case histories and ample information on race relations that raise critical questions on the justice system in the US. It’s revolutionary!

Kris Moger

American Justice On Trial by Lise Pearlman is a powerful look into the American justice system, comparing the present with the past to see if anything has changed since the 1968 trial of Huey Newton. Newton had been tried for the murder of police officer John Frey. In American Justice On Trial, Pearlman takes a frank look at the rising of the Black Panther Party, the racism it grew from, and the violence within the party, the police, and American society. Has anything changed? Does the American justice system still operate from a biased, racist perspective? How did the Newton trial affect society and movements such as Black Lives Matter? Pearlman asks all of these questions and more in this candid look at the American justice system.

In American Justice On Trial, Lise Pearlman delves into a history that is fraught with hatred, racism, misogyny, and death. The brutal honesty of her examination of Newton’s trial and the subsequent results it had on American society is both heavy and sobering. This book deserves to be a part of required reading not only in American history classes, but in other countries as well. Newton is portrayed as neither a hero nor a devil. Instead, he is a person struggling to survive in a society where most odds are stacked against him. With a strong sense of injustice, he and those around him want to change the system but are hampered by internal conflicts, racist meddling from the FBI and others in the justice system, and their own weaknesses. This book was a great and sobering read that I highly recommend.

K M Steele

American Justice on Trial: People v. Newton by Lise Pearlman is a riveting account of the trial of Black Panther leader Huey Newton, and a history lesson on the changing face of America’s cultural politics and legal system. Pearlman has compiled a fascinating account of the political and social forces that led to the formation of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, and a thoroughly researched account of the legal proceedings following Huey Newton’s arrest for the murder of Oakland Police Officer, John Frey. Pearlman frames the 1968 case around current movements such as Black Lives Matter, and captures the zeitgeist of the 1960s through compelling portrayals of key characters, including two strong females; lawyer Fay Stender, and Eldridge Cleaver’s wife, Kathleen.

But while the narrative focuses on the trial of Huey Newton, and the ground-breaking push by his attorney for a jury that reflected the diversity of the community at the time, it also encompasses the worldwide revolt against draconian governmental powers, and the abuse of FBI and CIA powers by Hoover and Nixon. For example: the binding and gagging in a courtroom of Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, and the assassination of another Panther, Fred Hampton, by FBI agents. It is also saddening to discover that Huey Newton was eventually murdered by an African American youth, and Fay Stender’s efforts to free Newton were never acknowledged and endangered her in later life. Nevertheless Lise Pearlman’s account is even-handed and finishes on a quietly cautious, yet optimistic note. In her final passage she urges readers to keep the conversation going, and follow the progress of a companion documentary to American Justice On Trial: People v. Newton at www.americanjusticeontrial.com.

Gisela Dixon

American Justice on Trial: People v. Newton by Lise Pearlman is a non-fiction historical book on the famous trial of the 1960s in America—People v. co-founder of the Black Panther Party, Huey Newton, who was on trial for his life on charges he murdered a policeman. This is the second book I have read by Lise Pearlman and once again I am impressed with her depth of knowledge, and the sheer volume of facts that she has skillfully presented in this book. In essence, American Justice on Trial is not just a book about this internationally well-known trial, but is also about the history of race relations in America, detailed background information about the Black Panther Party and its founders, and literally a day by day account of the developments of this historic case and its conclusion. The book is neatly organized into sections that provide detailed information about the case and American race issues, both past and present, along with a thorough index, sources, and end notes sections at the end.

American Justice on Trial: People v. Newton is a wonderful book and I was impressed with the sheer amount of data and research that had gone into this, as well as Lise’s sharp, observant, and relevant presentation of it. Lise manages to take the relatively dry topic of law and transform it into an exciting and almost thrilling narrative. What I loved most about this book is how it ties the past in with the present where racial discrimination, the existence of violent, white supremacist groups like KKK, and widespread racial bias are a reality of American society today. Although the book runs into several hundred pages, whether due to its content or due to Lise’s engaging writing style, I found I was unable to put this book down and it didn’t feel long. This is a must-read not only for adults, but I would hope for school children as well because, in order to achieve a better future, a thorough understanding of the past is necessary and this book provides that.

Christian Sia

In American Justice on Trial: People v. Newton, Lise Pearlman revisits one of the most important, sensational trials in US history, the Huey Newton trial, bringing to light the injustices and the role of race relations in the trial, the jury selection process, and considers the question of how just was an all-white jury in the trial of a black defendant in a murder case against a white policeman? But this book has more than that; it examines America’s broken justice system, and illustrates with compelling arguments and stunning facts how, while the jury selection process has improved to feature a “jury of one’s peers” drawn from a cross-section of citizens, the tensions in race relations haven’t abated.

This is a historical book that has powerful legal implications, well researched and featuring compelling voices, including statements from key witnesses and players in the controversial trial of Newton and the birth and mission of the Black Panther movement. Some of the voices featured in this book are: Newton’s prosecutor, Lowell Jensen, the first black jury foreman, David Harper, Newton’s older brother, members of the Black Panther Party, Kathleen Cleaver, Emory Douglas, and David Hilliard, and human rights activists.

The book isn’t limited to the Newton trial, because it brings in historical information from 1901 up to the Goetz murder case in the mid-1990s. Readers get insights, facts, and commentaries on the Black Panther Party, a piece of history I found curiously interesting, and the author draws strong similarities with contemporary social climates, evoking police brutality. Lise Pearlman does an impeccable job in demonstrating how the racial atmosphere hasn’t changed much — if it has changed at all — from what it used to be in 1968 during the Newton trial. The writing is impeccably good, loaded with historical references and voices that readers will want to hear. American Justice on Trial: People v. Newton is a relevant historical document, a strong indictment of America’s justice system, and a compelling invitation to racial dialogue. It is well written, very informative, and utterly engaging.