Aaron Sorkin has used his acclaimed screenwriting skills to bring many real life stories to the big screen over the years, and for his new Netflix film he’s focused on a high-profile trial from 1968.
The Trial of The Chicago 7 is centred on the charges brought against a group of defendants accused of conspiracy and inciting to riot after taking part in counter-protests at the Democratic National Cast.
The Trial of The Chicago 7 cast will play several real life figures from the trial, with the likes of Eddie Redmayne, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Mark Rylance and Michael Keaton all featuring.
But what actually happened at the trial? Read on for everything you need to know.
Who were the Chicago 7?
A group of defendants charged by the US government with conspiracy and inciting to riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the Chicago 7 were involved in one of the most notorious trials of the ’60s.
The defendants were named Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner, while a further activist – Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale – was originally charged as well before his trial was severed.
The seven had each been involved in demonstrations which took place over five days – numbering 15,000 protestors in all – and had been primarily concerned with Lyndon B Johnson’s policy regarding the Vietnam War.
The rally had been largely peaceful, but when they attempted to march to the International Amphitheatre, police tried to push the protestors off the street – making many arrests in the protest and using violent methods including tear gas, mace and batons.
Hundreds of police officers and protesters were injured – with journalists covering the rally also injured by police – and the US National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence later declared the incident as a “police riot”.
Following the incident, the eight aforementioned activists were (including Bobby Seale) were charged under the anti-riot provisions of Title X of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, with a further sixteen co-conspirators avoiding prosecution.
All eight defendants were charged with conspiracy to cross state lines to incite a riot, to teach the making of an incendiary device, and to commit acts to impede law enforcement officers in their lawful duties.
What happened at the trial?
At the trial – which drew demonstrations outside the courtroom – Julius Hoffman served as judge, Richard Schultz and Tom Foran as prosecutors and William Kunstler, Leonard Weinglass, Michael Kennedy, Michael Tigar, Charles Garry, Gerald Lefcourt and Dennis Roberts as defence attorneys.
From early on it appeared to many following the trial that Hoffman was biased against the defendants, with the judge making sure to point out that defendant Abbie Hoffman was not related to him and voicing his disapproval of Kunstler’s long hair.
During the early stages of the trial, Seale loudly protested at the fact he was unable to have the lawyer of his choice – who was about to undergo bladder surgery – and calling out the judge’s illegal, an in his view racist, actions.
Seale was then bound, gagged, and chained to a chair before being removed from the courtroom altogether – with the intention of his trial being moved to a later date, although it actually ended up never happening at all. Seale was also charged with a four year sentence for contempt of court but the sentence was overturned in the Court of Appeals.
The remaining seven defendants – and in particular Hoffman and Rubin – frequently mocked courtroom procedures, one day even turning up to the court wearing judicial robes, and then removing them to reveal Chicago police uniforms, while they also repeatedly insulted the judge to his face.
Over months, many witnesses were called, including several key figures in the counter-cultural movement such as Phil Ochs, Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie, Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg and Jesse Jackson while the trial continued in a turbulent fashion.
Eventually, each of the defendants – and their lawyers – were cited for numerous contempts of court, with sentences including four years handed to Kunstler for addressing Hoffman as “Mr. Hoffman” instead as “Your Honor” and eight months to Abbie Hoffman for laughing in court.
What was the verdict of the trial?
All seven defendants were acquitted of conspiracy, with Froines and Weiner acquitted completely and the other five convicted of crossing state lines with the intent to incite a riot – sentenced to five years in prison and fined $5,000 each.
After the verdict, defendant David Dellinger told the court that whatever punishment he faced in prison “will be slight compared to what has happened already to the Vietnamese people, to the black people, to the criminals with whom we are now spending our days in the Cook County jail”.
Meanwhile Judge Hoffman ordered that the barbers of the Cook County Jail cut the long hair of the defendants and defence lawyers – with Sheriff Joseph Woods of Cook County later proudly displaying Abbie Hoffman’s shorn hair.
More than two years after the verdict, in November 1972, the convictions were all overturned by the United States Court of Appeal for the Seventh Circuit due to the judge’s bias, citing his refusal to permit defence attorneys to screen prospective jurors for cultural and racial bias and the FBI surveillance of the defence lawyers’ offices.
The contempt of court convictions were also overturned on appeal, with the decision made that the personal nature of the conduct required all of the charges to be tried before another judge.
At the retrial, the new judge found Dellinger, Rubin, Hoffman, and Kunstler guilty of some contempt charges, but he did not sentence any of them to jail or fines.