1970 - The defense of "Los Siete de la Raza

 

The killing of Joe Brodnik and the wounding of Paul McGoran 

 

In May, 1969, six young immigrant Central American men living in San Francisco's Mission District were arrested and charged with murder.  A seventh, George (Gio) Lopez, was sought but never apprehended,  Five were held in the San Francisco City Jail:  Nelson Rodriguez, Danilo Melendez, Jose Rios, Rudolfo Martinez and his brother Jose Mario Martinez.  A sixth, Gary Lescallett, was held in the County Jail.  The six men on trial were charged with murder of policeman Joe Brodnik and the shooting of Paul McGoran.  The two men were plainclothes San Francisco Police Department Policemen who apparently observed several Latino youth moving a TV they thought was stolen into someone's home on Alvarado Street in the Mission District on May 1, 1969. A struggle ensued and Brodnik was fatally shot with McGoran's gun.  Four young men ran off and were later arrested, along with another two Latino men who were not at the scene of the shooting.

Los Siete Defense Committee and the La Raza Information Center

 

A Los Siete Defense Committee was soon organized in the Mission community where the defendants lived, and the Black Panther's lawyer, Charles Garry was hired to defend them.  The La Raza Information Center began operating in the summer of 1970 in the vacant storefront next to Defense Committee's office.  The Information Center was running many programs, including Centro de Salud, a free breakfast program, a community newspaper, but its main program was supporting the "Los Siete" Defense Committee.  The trial was a fiasco, as the prosecution could not produce any concrete evidence implicating the defendants in the shootings.  There were no witnesses to the shooting.  The defense argued the possibility that McGoran accidentally drew his gun during the fracas and fatally shot his unarmed partner. All of the defendants were acquitted.

 

The Los Siete defendants were glamorized by the left

 

The murder trial of six Central American young men from the Mission district captured the attention of Bay Area radicals.  The case was promoted by the left into a cause celebre.  A "good vs. evil" narrative was created by Los Siete supporters which portrayed Los Siete as seven innocent Latino students who had been brutalized and  framed by racist police.  It was further hyped  by the grandiose name granted to the group of defendants:  "Los Siete de la Raza" (The Seven of the People). 

 

Of course these young men deserved a good defense, but the left's uncritical glorification of the defendants seemed overdone and insincere.  Nowadays, with the luxury of hindsight, the Los Siete episode looks more like it was a desperate attempt to revive a no longer sustainable Bay Area radical movement, exhausted by ten tumultuous years of non-stop struggle.  Nevertheless, many old-timers remember the Los Siete case as an important part of their political radicalization.  Maybe it was, but I don't see Los Siete as heroes, especially given what some of them did before and after their trial.  

 

What happened to Los Siete after their acquittal

 

New charges:  In December, 1970, a month after their acquittal, four members of Los Siete de la Raza appeared at the San Mateo County Courthouse to enter pleas on charges of auto theft and armed robbery, crimes allegedly committed in May 1969 at Pescadero State Beach, San Mateo County.  Jose Rios and Nelson Rodriguez were arrested separately in San Francisco, charged with suspicion of possessing marijuana and LSD and were also charged in their abscence with auto theft and armed robbery in San Mateo County.

 

Information that is twenty years old:  The only other information I have on the lives of the defendants after 1970 comes from a 1999 SFGate article I found online.  According to the article, few people interviewed seemed to know what became of Los Siete.  My note:  although some of the young men had been attending college preparedness sessions at the College of San Mateo prior to their arrests, others had allegedly been involved in robbery and auto theft.  According to Oscar Rios, brother of defendant Jose Rios, many became "disillusioned" after the trial, when they went from being political heroes to joining the ranks of the unemployed - forever marked as cop-killer suspects.

According to the 1999 article, police records showed no evidence that the Martinez brothers had any further brushes with the law. Their location was unknown.  Jose Rios was then working in the Bay Area as a mechanic and painter, his brother said. He was unavailable for comment.  In 1999 Nelson Rodriguez lived in the Lake Tahoe area.  George (Gio) Lopez had been charged but never apprehended.  He hijacked a plane to Cuba and was later believed to have returned to his native El Salvador.

 

At the time the article was writtenGary Lescallet was serving a life sentence, with no possibility of parole, at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, about 40 miles southeast of Sacramento. He was convicted in the 1979 kidnap and murder of Edith Jackson, an elderly retired schoolteacher. Lescallet maintained during the trial that he had no involvement in Jackson's death.  He was in another prison facility when I photographed the other five defendants at the City Jail.

 

Danilo Melendez was stabbed to death at Deuel Vocational Institute in Tracy in 1977, while serving time for first-degree robbery.  

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Five of the defendants allowed out of their cells to confer with their attorney, Charles Garry, and to be photographed by me for the People's World newspaper

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Nelson Rodriguez

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Rodolfo Martinez

Danilo Melendez

Jose Mario Martinez

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Jose Rios

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Los Siete defense attorney Charles Garry, the "go-to" attorney for people of color in major crimiinal cases that attracted left-wing attention and organized support

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Garry being interviewed for local news radio.  He was articulate, feisty and well-prepared

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Charles Garry was well-known, respected and a celebrity with the media and the left (and the left media).

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Supporters filling a court elevator

Los Siete were supported by the Black Panther Party.  Here the Panther newspaper is being sold outside the courtroom.

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Waiting to get into the Los Siete trial courtroom

Members of the black community, no strangers to police brutality, provided support in the courtroom audience

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Overflow crowd at the courtroom door