By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
From jail, League rallied supporters. “I’m talking about revolution, insurrection, a change, and this fascist action that’s coming down, we have to put a halt to it, and we can’t put a halt to it with words,” he wrote in a letter to supporters, signing off, “All Power to the People, Signed Arthur League, Political Prisoner.” He entered an innocent plea in late November 1969, but the trial wouldn’t begin until months later.
Two bomb threats delayed the start. A rally outside the Orange County courthouse before the trial drew hundreds, with Lynem telling them, “We’ll change the courts ourselves. We’ll take it into the streets. If there’s no justice, we’ll protest and demonstrate.” A Panther newsletter called League a “field warrior” and the Tice brothers “20th-century house slaves” and referred to Sasscer as “Rookie Pig of the Year.”
A source told the SAPD near the trial’s opening statements, “I don’t think [blacks] are going to burn the city down, but I do think they’re going to do something violent.” Nothing like that ever happened, but police and FBI monitoring of county African-Americans and their supporters intensified.
“I had an FBI agent come out because I was chairing the Fair Housing Council,” says Bob Johnson, author of A Different Shade of Orange: Voices of Orange County, California, Black Pioneers. “The FBI guy says to me, ‘So, what do you know about the Black Panthers? If you learn some things about them, give me a phone call.’ The last thing I needed to do was be an informant informing the FBI about the Black Panthers.”
Defense attorneys Robert Green (who also became a Superior Court judge) and Michael Gerbosi tried to declare the trial unconstitutional before its start, claiming the all-white jury was biased and that the Register’s sensationalistic media coverage (at one point, it printed a front-page cartoon showing a black family killing a pig dressed as a cop) guaranteed an unfair trial. Judge Samuel Dreizen refused, and the trial began on April 1, 1970.
Green’s strategy was to cast doubt on the prosecution’s three main witnesses—Bodiford and the Tice brothers, all of whom were granted immunity. Bodiford testified he was there when League stole the .38, even though the original police reports never placed him alongside Grimes and Lynem. He also revealed that officers beat him. Steve Tice had said League shot Sasscer only because the officer had reached for his gun, but under cross-examination, he also admitted that Dickey threatened him with a 14-year prison sentence if he didn’t testify on behalf of the prosecution. Ricky Tice acknowledged he changed his story before the grand jury three times, finally going with the version implicating League after investigators threatened to charge him with murder.
In a bizarre twist, Ricky filed a lawsuit in federal court against the SAPD during the trial, accusing them of false imprisonment, assault and battery, and subornation of perjury. “By reason of fear of [police] threats, plaintiff did return immediately to the grand jury, retract and changed his testimony, and testified falsely in accordance with the officers’ demands,” the lawsuit read.
Other witnesses testified only that they saw two young black men at the scene of Sasscer’s shooting; none could get a clear look. Green produced witnesses who said League was in the Bodiford garage when the slaying occurred. League claimed he left the Bodiford house by himself after the murder and had given the .38 to Ricky Tice, who left before him. He confessed to hiding from police but only because Bodiford told him they would shoot him on sight.
In their closing arguments, Gerbosi and Green called the Tice brothers and Bodiford “pathological liars,” but they also argued that if League did shoot Sasscer, it wasn’t first-degree murder. More than 150 protesters tried to attend the closing statements; most were denied entry.
After deliberating for nine days, the jury reached a verdict: guilty of second-degree murder, with no premeditation behind League’s deed despite the Panthers’ anti-cops beliefs. Dickey expressed his disappointment, while Allen blasted the decision, asking the Register, “How . . . can such a vicious crime be anything less than first-degree murder?” League appealed the decision, but a state court rejected it in 1972. That same year, a federal judge awarded Ricky Tice $2,000 in his suit against the SAPD. League served seven years of a five-years-to-life sentence. He returned to Santa Ana after his release, met with Lynem once, then moved to the Bay Area and never lived in Orange County again.
* * *
Paul Walters was still in the Air Force when Sasscer was murdered, but he entered Santa Ana’s police academy during the League trial. He remembers a department “that was still hurting emotionally” and going through convulsions as internal and external politics threatened its ability to serve.
Assuming there is some element of truth in the story, if I were the principal of that school, I would lynch the parent who threatened me with violence, and his son who bullied other students would get thrown out of school.
My mother was one of the original 12 jurors in the League trial. She was eventually excused because of medical issues. But she has always maintained that she believed League was set up and that one of the Tice brothers was the trigger man. I remember, as a 13 year old, going to the trial and watching the proceedings. It was a fascinating introduction into the criminal legal system.
As someone who was involved in this incident allow me to say this story is about 90% BS and the rest,the names of those involved, is correct. I think many of those mentioned in the story "Have visions of Grandeur". Many of the statements mentioned are inaccurate and some must have injured themselves while patting their own back. To those reading this story be assured it is fiction much like a dime novel. The facts in this story have three things correct. 1. Sasscer was the victim, 2. League was the shooter. 3. Santa Ana was the city. After that well it was in 1969. Maybe that is # 4.
Great story. My parents were on that Human Relations Commission and I remember, even though I was 4 at the time, them discussing all the unrest going on. It's nice to be able to read this as an adult and get a better grasp as to what was really going on.
This article was really interesting. I am glad I have always been surround by GOOD people who grounded me with TRUTH.
Very, very well done piece. I've lived in Santa Ana for about 13 years now and have never heard of this story. Good perspective...good writing...very much appreciated. I'd love to have a historical piece on Santa Ana on a monthly basis or something. I think a lot of people would find it very interesting.
Great job on this story. This little piece of Santa Ana history has been all but forgotten. It was almost surreal to read that Everett Dickey was the prosecuting DA on this case.
I was at the courthouse the day Judge Dickey ordered Geronimo Pratt released. It is still one of my fondest memories and happiest days.
Thanks again for writing this piece.
Great insightful article. I just love reading about local history and you have a knack on how to do that, Gustavo.
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