The Sky's the Limit: People V. Newton: the REAL Trial of the 20th Century?


Anyone fascinated by true crime and legal thrillers will want to read The Sky's The Limit: People v. Newton, The Real Trial of the 20th Century? In comparing the 1968 trial of Black Panther Party leader Huey Newton to other riveting American trials from 1901 to 1999, author Lise Pearlman revisits historic legal battles featuring murder, rape and kidnapping, skeletons in celebrity closets, class warfare, fixing the World Series, evolution versus creationism, abuse...
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The Sky's The Limit: People v. Newton, The REAL Trial of the 20th Century?

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Anyone fascinated by true crime and legal thrillers will want to read The Sky's The Limit: People v. Newton, The Real Trial of the 20th Century? In comparing the 1968 trial of Black Panther Party leader Huey Newton to other riveting American trials from 1901 to 1999, author Lise Pearlman revisits historic legal battles featuring murder, rape and kidnapping, skeletons in celebrity closets, class warfare, fixing the World Series, evolution versus creationism, abuse of power and political conspiracy. Each "trial of the century" serves as a window into its own era, but the author asserts that the Newton murder trial following a shootout with two Oakland policemen--where the accused revolutionary put America itself on trial for 400 years of racism-should head the list. It drew an international spotlight on a superpower rocked by two political assassinations and bitterly divided over the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. At the time, the FBI considered the Black Panthers the greatest internal threat to America's security. So did Party spokesman Eldridge Cleaver, who threatened revolution if Newton were condemned to die. The author contends that the jury's surprising verdict still reverberates today-had it turned out otherwise Barack Obama would likely not be President.

Lise Pearlman was an undergraduate at Yale during the murder trial of Panther Chairman Bobby Seale in New Haven and has lived most of her adult life in Oakland where the 1968 Huey Newton murder trial took place. She arrived in the fall of 1971 between Newton's second and third trials for the killing of Officer Frey. Now a retired judge, she practices as a mediator with Alternative Resolution Centers.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In this exhaustive account of the 1968 criminal trial of Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton, Pearlman (former judge, California Supreme Court) asserts that People v. Newton deserves to be remembered as the defining trial of the 20th century because of the light it sheds on racism in the United States. Rather than solely focusing on the specifics of this case though, she details over a dozen cases often shortlisted for the title "trial of the century," ranging from the Scopes trial to O.J. Simpson. However, because of Pearlman's thorough treatment not only of the details of these cases but of the cultural climates in which they occurred, she makes her task of convincing readers to anoint People v. Newton the trial of the century that much harder. VERDICT This thorough text stands apart from other case histories for its comparative nature as well as its focus on this particular trial. It deserves a place on the shelf of anyone interested in legal studies, the radical social movements of the 1960s, or African American studies.—Alyssa Vincent, Emporia State Univ., Portland, OR
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781587902208
  • Publisher: Regent Press
  • Publication date: 2/1/2012
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 826
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.83 (d)

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Regent Press

Copyright © 2012 Lise Pearlman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-58790-220-8


THE PLAYING FIELD: Sometimes The Fix Is In

Every time I turn around, there's a new trial of the century.

F. Lee Bailey

Just as the World Series has always referred to an American baseball championship (Canadian teams now permitted), when American journalists promote "the trial of the century" they generally refer to a trial held in the United States. For this reason, most lists leave out famous and influential foreign proceedings, such as the marathon Philippine corruption trials of "the Steel Butterfly" Imelda Marcos, wealthy widow of dictator Ferdinand Marcos (1991–2011). List-makers often omit trials for crimes against humanity: the historic Nazi War Crimes Trials in Nuremberg (1945–46); the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel; the 1987 filmed French jury trial of Klaus Barbie ("the butcher of Lyon"); and the televised Romanian court martial of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989. Like the 21st century war crimes trials of Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein, all of these international trials drew global interest. The Nuremberg trials trump all the others because they established the Nuremberg Principles, which separate the customary horrors of war from inhumane outrages—evils so extreme that the "just following orders" defense makes civilized people cringe.

But limiting the playing field to America still leaves a formidable number of choices. Perhaps because of our short public memory, national reporters never tire of promoting a new "trial of the century" every few years. The Washington Post once described this exercise as "a traditional bit of American hyperbole, like calling a circus 'The Greatest Show on Earth.'" Some consider the category a childish game of superlatives, then favor contests they participated in or covered. Trials, like professional sports, have spectators—and many trial watchers and avid sports fans aren't afraid to reveal their prejudices. Americans are much more likely to hail a trial as a "trial of the century" if they lived through the era when the event took place.

Only talented trivia players recall that the 1921–22 San Francisco rape and manslaughter trials of silent movie megastar Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle ruined his acting career just after the obese comedian had signed an unprecedented million-dollar contract. Over Labor Day weekend in 1920—the first year of Prohibition—Arbuckle seldom changed out of his pajamas as he hosted a three-day drinking binge at San Francisco's St. Francis Hotel. The revelers included Virginia Rappe, an unemployed actress in her mid-twenties, who fell violently ill and died a few days later of a ruptured bladder and peritonitis. When the hotel physician arrived, another guest, Maude Delmont, told him Arbuckle had attacked Rappe, which Delmont later repeated to the police.

It looked like an open and shut case against the pie-throwing Keystone Kop. Hollywood already faced threats of federal censorship for its new focus on sex as a movie draw. For more than a year, tabloids had been scandalizing the public with revelations that performers with staid screen images had private lives rife with drug abuse and adultery. Outraged society women demanded that the San Francisco District Attorney's office take action to avenge the tragic death of the raven-haired beauty. Newly elected prosecutor Matthew Brady envisioned a murder conviction against Arbuckle as his ticket to the governor's office.

The only problem with targeting Arbuckle was that the allegations were patently false. The complaining witness, known also as Madame Black, was a blackmailer and bigamist, incapable of telling the same story twice. Rappe herself had told the hotel doctor that the shy comedian had made no advances whatsoever. Rappe did not arrive at the party in good health as Delmont claimed, but was feeling poorly, with symptoms similar to prior illnesses. Down and out, she came to borrow money from her old friend Arbuckle for an abortion—her sixth. Two doctors who examined Rappe confirmed she had advanced gonorrhea and died of natural causes with no signs of violence.

Before trial, the Hearst newspapers, which boasted a circulation of twenty million people in eighteen cities, piled on to destroy Arbuckle's reputation. Aside from his penchant for yellow journalism, publisher William Randolph Hearst had a personal motive: to distract people from rumors that the married father of five himself was keeping Hollywood leading lady Marion Davies as his own mistress. Theaters nationwide stopped showing Arbuckle's movies. Yet no witness at trial ever testified to seeing or hearing Arbuckle assault Rappe. Recognizing how poor a witness Delmont would make, District Attorney Brady never called her to the stand. Instead, he pressured two other women at the hotel party to swear they heard Rappe accuse Arbuckle of hurting her, contrary to their original statements when interviewed by the police.

After two hung juries, Arbuckle was officially banned from the movies by Hollywood's new censorship czar, lawyer Will Hays, President Harding's former campaign manager and Postmaster General. The third trial established Arbuckle's innocence. The jury met for only a few minutes, just long enough to record their acquittal and pen a rare written apology for the great injustice done in besmirching Arbuckle's name without "the slightest proof ... to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime." Though Hays rescinded the ban against Arbuckle, it came too late to save his career. Unrepentant, Hearst boasted that the three trials "sold more newspapers than any event since the sinking of the Lusitania." By the summer of 1922, Hays blacklisted from the movie industry close to two hundred other reputed sinners. Hollywood soon developed a new morality code for movies by which it censored itself for decades.

Ironically in late 1924 Hearst himself was the subject of rampant rumors that he accidentally shot and killed Hollywood's pioneering Western filmmaker Thomas Ince aboard Hearst's yacht (supposedly while aiming at Charlie Chaplin, whom Hearst suspected of having an affair with his mistress Marion Davies). But the official medical report was that Ince died of a heart attack; his body was immediately cremated and the District Attorney quickly dropped the investigation. Recently, Hollywood Crime reporter Denise Noe reviewed the Arbuckle case and suggested that Rappe may have actually died from complications of a hushed-up illegal abortion. Brady never did attain higher office. In 1943, Edmund G. "Pat" Brown—the current governor's father—defeated Brady for reelection and the position became Pat Brown's stepping stone to California's governorship.

* * *

In contrast to the irresponsible newspaper coverage of the Fatty Arbuckle trials, in April of 1922 The Wall Street Journal broke a real scandal— secret leases of Navy oil reserves at Teapot Ridge in Wyoming by President Warren Harding's new Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall. The former New Mexican Senator was a Republican crony of Ohio political boss Harry Daugherty, who had engineered Harding's improbable presidential campaign and his own appointment as Attorney General. Key Democrats in the Senate, with the support of Progressive Republican leader Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette, called for investigation of the suspicious, no-bid Teapot Dome contracts.

In the spring of 1923, Harding tried to curb a related scandal by ordering the dismissal of Daugherty's aide Jess Smith, who then committed suicide. Harding himself died suddenly in August of 1923. The Senate probes continued after President Calvin Coolidge took office. Wisconsin's Senator La Follette then launched his own presidential campaign as a third party candidate—the short-lived Progressive Party of 1924—which garnered the Wisconsin reformer 17 percent of the vote. In the spring of 1924, Attorney General Daugherty resigned amid accusations of another major scandal—that he and his deceased pal Jess Smith had received large bribes from bootleggers buying immunity from prosecution under Prohibition's Volstead Act. In late 1924, investigators finally found evidence that Albert Fall had been bribed to permit the secret oil leases with a $100,000 interest free loan—about $1.2 million today—and lied to a Senate Committee to cover it up. The Teapot Dome Scandal established both the right of Congress to compel testimony and Albert Fall's dubious place in history as the first cabinet member ever imprisoned for his official actions.

* * *

People today know Gloria Vanderbilt for her designer jeans and as the mother of CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper. Some senior citizens may remember the 1934 custody battle between the aunt of the ten-year-old heiress and her beautiful mother that delved into the young widow's exotic love life in Europe. Though the court kept both the press and members of the public from attending the trial, headline stories and pictures emerged anyway from late night interviews of the warring principals.

Others of advanced age may recall the scandalous paternity trial of international superstar and filmmaker Charlie Chaplin. Targeted by the FBI as a political Leftist, the fifty-five-year-old British comedian defeated the Mann Act charge of transporting one of his many flames, aspiring actress Joan Barry, across state lines for immoral purposes. Blood tests also showed that Chaplin was not the father of the twenty-three-year-old ingénue's baby. Yet, after two civil jury trials sensationalized once again by the Hearst newspapers, a California judge ordered Chaplin to pay child support, convinced by Barry's lawyer that the blood test was unreliable. The outcome prompted changes in California law authorizing admission of such scientific evidence in all future paternity suits.

* * *

A far more quintessential "trial of the century" arose from events that took place on a real playing field back in 1919, when Chaplin reigned as the comic Little Tramp of silent film. That same year Prohibition became the law of the land and Congress sent the controversial women's suffrage amendment to the states for ratification. It was also a year of record strikes, bloody racial strife, and the world's deadliest flu pandemic. President Wilson spent most of the first half of 1919 in France, negotiating the Treaty of Versailles, hoping that his plan for a League of Nations would prevent another global war. By the time the World War I peace conference started, the Irish had already started a guerrilla war for independence from the British.

A month before Wilson's voyage back from France, radicals who called themselves "The Anarchist Fighters" set off bombs in seven American cities, leaving flyers warning of class war and bloodshed to "rid the world of your tyrannical institutions." On the President's return, the isolationist Congress embarrassed him by refusing to ratify the treaty he had negotiated. The ailing President then crisscrossed the country by train in a doomed effort to convince the American public to support the Utopian plan that won him the 1919 Peace Prize.

In the first week of February, labor and management conflicts broke out from coast to coast, starting with the nation's first citywide general strike in Seattle. On September 9, Boston police made history when three-quarters of the mostly Irish-American force walked off their jobs to protest unmet demands, including the right to unionize. When gangs temporarily took control of its city streets, President Wilson accused the 1,100 underpaid peace officers of "an intolerable crime against civilization." The police lost their jobs to returning soldiers. The city offered their replacements pay raises, free uniforms, and more time off.

Stagnating wages exacerbated by post-war inflation and outrage at corporate war profiteering had set off the strikes. Anger reached historic levels among steel workers after a Federal Trade Commission report issued in the summer of 1918 blamed the steel, oil, and gas industries for acts of "inordinate greed, barefaced fraud, deceptive accounting practices and artificial price inflation." President Wilson tried to broker a deal with the intractable owners. On September 22, after the President's efforts failed, strikers shut down half the steel industry. Broken in spirit and health, back in Washington, D.C. on October 2, the President collapsed with a massive stroke—the same day that the best team in baseball appeared to be throwing the World Series.

The scandal took place at a time when baseball was still trying to shed its vulgar reputation—with half-hearted efforts and spotty results. In April of 1909, fans in Washington, D.C., had cheered when they recognized their three-hundred-pound, mustachioed President, William Howard Taft, arriving to watch the national pastime. The former sandlot catcher was the first sitting President to honor the sport with his presence. The next year, he started the tradition of throwing out a ceremonial first pitch. Taft, whose half-brother would soon buy the Chicago Cubs, called it a "clean, straight game." But baseball, from its inception, was far from clean. The owners treated the players like slaves, the conditions were dangerous, and the rough-hewn teams came largely from the ranks of illiterate, hard-drinking coal miners, factory workers, and farm boys.

Yet President Taft had reason to applaud the improvements instituted by baseball's first unofficial czar, Byron Bancroft "Ban" Johnson. Johnson was almost as enormous as Taft. In his three-piece suit with his hair neatly combed, Johnson looked every bit the stern, determined businessman he was, except when he sidled up to a bar. The son of a professor, Johnson had started law school, but found himself drawn like a magnet to baseball, first as a college player and then a sports writer. At twenty-eight, Johnson took over a low-budget minor league franchise out West and made a go of it. At the turn of the century, Johnson ambitiously renamed his franchise the American League, aiming to challenge the National League's monopoly. Johnson believed baseball could draw far more spectators if priced affordably in a setting without on-site gambling and alcohol, crude behavior, and foul-mouthed fans as then characterized National League games. The Sporting News described major league owners as "a malodorous gang" often engaged in "mudslinging, brawling, corruption, breaches of confidence, dishonorable conspiracies [and] threats of personal violence." The time was ripe for fresh leadership. At first, National League owners refused to give Johnson an audience. Then his new American League started outdrawing their games by luring key athletes like ace pitcher Cy Young. This wasn't hard to do, with salaries capped at a chintzy $2,400 a year. After battling in the courts for two years, the two leagues declared a truce and set up a three-man National Commission to oversee owner and player disputes, minimizing public scrutiny of any internal problems. The dictatorial Johnson would dominate the Commission and the sport for nearly two decades.

In an era rife with corruption, Johnson's changes were largely cosmetic. No one balked at players betting on their own teams to win. Baseball executives, including Johnson, sometimes wagered on the outcomes. Chicago reporter Hugh Fullerton—then regarded as one of the best sports analysts in the country—strongly suspected fixes in at least four early World Series, though no solid proof emerged. It was also an era of exclusion. The American establishment considered white supremacy a given; chapters of the revived Ku Klux Klan were opening across the country. Though more than fifty blacks had endured ridicule and abuse to play on some of the early professional baseball teams, by the late 1880s white athletes increasingly threatened boycotts of integrated match-ups. Faced with overwhelming pressure, the owners made a gentlemen's agreement banning all African-Americans from organized baseball. For the next six decades, though Native Americans could play, blacks had to be light-skinned enough to pass for white or Hispanic. If their ancestry became public, owners kicked them off the team. Almost all ball players were white and overtly, and sometimes violently, racist.

Above all, it was an era of rank hypocrisy—when society's leaders championed lofty ideals as they ignored blatant double standards in the courts and on the playing field. Detroit Tigers superstar Ty Cobb was among the most notorious. What Ty Cobb got away with over his career puts the 1919 White Sox Scandal into some perspective. In April of 1907, the twenty-year-old rising star attacked a black groundskeeper at a ball field in Augusta, Georgia, who made the mistake of offering a friendly backslap. When the man's wife came to her husband's aid, Cobb tried to choke her. He didn't let the woman go until a Tiger catcher tackled him. Two years later toward the end of the season in Cleveland, Cobb slapped an elevator operator for acting "uppity." When a black night watchman intervened, Cobb wrestled him to the ground and knifed him. A little over a week before, during a game, Cobb had spiked a Philadelphia A's player in his bare hand. On owner Connie Mack's complaint that Cobb was the dirtiest player he had ever seen, Ban Johnson issued a warning to Cobb for unsportsmanlike conduct. Cobb finished the season by winning his third straight batting championship and first Triple Crown by also leading the American League in runs batted in and home runs. After the season ended, the Tigers' attorneys resolved the attempted murder charge and civil claim by having Cobb plead guilty to assault and battery, pay a $100 fine, and cover the night watchman's hospital costs.

Excerpted from THE SKY'S THE LIMIT by LISE PEARLMAN. Copyright © 2012 Lise Pearlman. Excerpted by permission of Regent Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


AUTHOR'S FOREWORD....................     vii     

Part One....................          

INTRODUCTION....................     1     

1. THE PLAYING FIELD: Sometimes the Fix Is In....................     9     

2. DEMENTIA AMERICANA: The Murder of Stanford White....................     35     

3. UNDESIRABLE CITIzENS: The Murder Trial of Big Bill Haywood..............     55     

4. SHOWDOWN WITH THE SUPREME COURT: The Contempt Trial of Sheriff Joseph
Shipp....................     76     

5. LABOR V. CAPITAL REDUX: The Los Angeles Times Bombing Case..............     99     

6. MURDER BEGETS MURDER: The Tragic Deaths of Mary Phagan and Leo Frank....     107     

7. ANARCHIST SCARE: The Trial of Sacco and Vanzetti....................     130     

8. LEOPOLD AND LOEB: Murder for the Thrill of It....................     145     

9. THE SCOPES MONKEY TRIAL: The Staged Battle of Evolution v. Creationism..     163     

10. EVEN A BLACK MAN'S HOME IS HIS CASTLE: Pyrrhic Victory in the Sweet
Murder Trials....................     180     

11. SOUTHERN JUSTICE REVISITED: The Railroading of the Scottsboro Boys.....     203     

12. THE EXPLOSIVE MASSIE AFFAIR: Truth Battles Raw Power...................     214     

13. NATIONAL FRENZY: The Lindbergh Baby Killing....................     242     

14. SHAMELESS HASTE: The Rosenberg Espionage Trial....................     267     

15. DEATH OF INNOCENCE: Hate Crimes and the Civil Rights Movement..........     281     

16. BEYOND CIVIL RIGHTS: Other Movement Cases....................     290     

Part Two....................          

1. FREE HUEY NOW!....................     305     

2. THE PANTHERS' ROOTS....................     313     

3. TAKIN' CARE OF BUSINESS....................     323     

4. THE DEFENSE TEAM....................     331     

5. WHO DO YOU TRUST?....................     345     

6. HONKIES FOR HUEY....................     351     

7. THE SMELL OF REVOLUTION....................     356     

8. CLIENT OR COMRADE?....................     360     

9. POWER TO THE PEOPLE....................     366     

10. THE QUEST FOR A JURY OF HIS PEERS....................     385     

11. A MINORITY OF ONE....................     411     

12. ON TRIAL — NEWTON OR AMERICAN SOCIETY?....................     425     

13. THE DAY OF RECKONING ARRIVES....................     446     

14. AFTERMATH....................     475     

Part Three....................          

1. THE "FREE HUEY" CAMPAIGN EXPANDS TO BURSTING....................     487     

2. ECLIPSED....................     539     

3. VISIONS OF APOCALYPTIC RACE WAR....................     549     

4. TRIPLE JEOPARDY— BLACK, FEMALE, AND COMMUNIST....................     560     

5. WATERGATE OVERSHADOWS THE COBRA....................     605     

6. DOWNWARD SPIRAL....................     616     

7. A CLOSER LOOK AT THE COMPETITION....................     646     

8. THE PRECARIOUS PATH TO A BI-RACIAL PRESIDENT....................     676     

Endnotes....................     717     

Sources....................     763     

Index....................     780     

Acknowledgments....................     805     

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