Red Tide, V. 2, No. 1 (Issue #5)
Gary Lawton: Political Prisoner
[by Michael Letwin]
Gary Lawton is a black political prisoner. He has been in jail since May 19, 1971 on charges of murder.
Gary is accused of killing two white officers in revenge for the police killing of William Palmer, a black man in Riverside, on April 2, 1971.
After the killing of the police, the city’s 185-man force was put on standby alert and the black community in Riverside was harassed by roadblock searches. The initial reports gave descriptions of four suspects, three white and one black, between the ages of 16 and 18. Three were described as about 5’7, with medium builds, the other about 6′ with a thin build.
Since there had not been one policeman killed in 28 years in Riverside, 18 detectives were assigned no finding the killer. But it was sometime before the police arrested any suspects. Gradually, the police narrowed their investigation down to one individual: Gary Lawton.
Gary Lawton is an ex-marine and self-employed maintenance man. For several years, he has been a leader in grassroots organizations in the black community, and has been considered by police to be Riverside’s “chief black militant.” In 1968, after Martin Luther King’s assassination, Lawton and other black residents had pressured the city to rename Bordwell Park after King, and in the summer of 1968, Lawton headed a new group called the Black Congress. The Congress urged boycotts of stores with racist hiring practices, protested police harassment and demanded that rundown housing projects in which low-income blacks were forced to live be improved.
His wife, Chukia Lawton, was involved in a walkout of black nurses at the city’s Parkview hospital, where she worked, to get a hospital administrator fired because of his racism.
Before being arrested, Gary had voluntarily submitted to go to the police station for questioning several times, and twice submitted to a lie detector test, which confirmed “no deception.”
At the time of time of the shooting of the police, Lawton had been in his front yard, fixing a truck. Lawton matched none of the suspects’ descriptions. He is 33 years old, heavyset, and balding (the police claimed that the suspect had an Afro). But this didn’t matter to the police, who arrested him.
The grand jury’s indictment of Gary was based almost wholly on the testimony of two blacks, Ronald Williams, and Ronald McKenna. Williams claimed that he had sold Lawton the shotgun used in the killing, however Williams was widely suspected in the black community of being a police informer and had been heard to claim that the gun that he claims to have sold to Lawton, was in reality a gun he (Williams) had stolen from a Highway Patrol car. It was alleged that the other witness, McKenna, was an informer and a known addict.
It was also found that the guns that the police had taken from Lawton’s home did not match up with ballistics tests on the murder weapon.
Although Lawton was the police’s main target, they had to make two more arrests to round out their story. In Oct. 1971, they arrested two more blacks, Nehmiah Jackson, a Riverside student, and Larrie Gardner, an unemployed janitor. Both they and Lawton were charged with conspiracy to commit murder.
Police also announced that they had a voiceprint of the man who called the police station to lure the two officers to the “ambush,” and that this matched voice.
Jackson and Gardner both maintained that they did not know each other or Lawton, but one of the prosecution witnesses also testified that he had seen them together in a house, all plotting the murder.
Meanwhile a defense committee was being set up by Chukia Lawton and other members of the black community. People working with the committee were constantly harassed, and established organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League refused to take a position on it. Ms. Lawton has been arrested on several occasions for disorderly conduct, and other minor charges at demonstrations and rallies.
The committee realized that they had no chance of getting a fair trial for Gary in Riverside, and therefore tried to get the trial changed to some other city, preferably L.A. or a Bay Area city. Instead it was transferred to Indio, a town in the middle of the desert. Indio has a population of 16,000 with only a few blacks. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to see what kind of “trial” Lawton could get there.
Because the trial was moved to such a remote area, Lawton’s lawyer in L.A. found that they could no longer handle the case. This left him without counsel just one month before the scheduled opening of his trial.
There are now 8 counts of murder, and one of shooting at an occupied dwelling (in 1968) that have been to the charges against Lawton.
Lawton’s trial has been going since July 10, 1972. Lawton has been imprisoned without bail for over a year, and he is still being railroaded.
If you want to help, send money, or find out more information about Gary Lawton, write to:
GARY LAWTON DEFENSE COMMITTEE
P.O. BOX 5154
San Bernardino, Calif. 92408
Also, on Saturday, Oct. 14, at the Long March Center, there will be a benefit for Gary Lawton Defense Committee; speaking will be a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and Chukia Lawton.
The Long March is located at 715 S. Park View. It will start at 8:30 p.m.
Gary Lawton Defense Committee