By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
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.
Former Chief Allen “had a motto: ‘Be good, or be gone,’” says Walters, Santa Ana’s top cop since 1988. “The policing ideas in those days were old-school, good-ol’-boy tradition—lock ’em up and throw away the key.” That approach “certainly created difficult challenges” for the department in maintaining a good relationship with Santa Ana’s black and Latino communities.
Community furor over the SAPD’s investigation of the Sasscer murder contributed to Allen’s retirement in 1972. Following him was Ray Davis, who instituted the then-revolutionary concept of community policing, which encourages officers to maintain close ties to city residents. Other local departments emulated Santa Ana, and Walters has earned national praise for continuing and expanding the strategy.
A new police culture wasn’t the only positive change that resulted from Sasscer’s death. The 1969 grand jury issued a special report recommending the county create a Human Relations Commission to mitigate the bad blood between police and minorities in Santa Ana. “If no attempt is made to resolve these difference, the potential danger can have tragic repercussions for all of Orange County,” the report stated.