Both the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner have reported that the charging of former police officer Christopher Samayoa with manslaughter is the first time in San Francisco history that a district attorney has charged a police officer with homicide.
Those reports are wrong. I know this because my late aunt served on the jury in the manslaughter trial of police officer Michael R. O’Brien, charged with shooting dead a Black truck driver named George Baskett in 1968. I don’t want to take anything away from District Attorney Chesa Boudin for his bold action, but this story needs to be told.
Let’s hope that the Samayoa trial doesn’t end in the same kerfuffle that the O’Brien trial did.
On September 29, 1968, after a day of drinking and boating at Lake Berryessa, an off-duty 28-year-old O’Brien, another off-duty cop named Willis Garriott, and two women companions pulled a boat trailer into Brush Place, a dead-end alley near the Hall of Injustice.
A Black resident of the alley, Muni bus driver Carl Hawkins, accidentally brushed his car against O’Brien’s trailer. An argument ensued, and O’Brien drew his gun. Both of the two women with the two cops later testified that O’Brien told Hawkins, “If you hit my car again, I’ll shoot you.” Other Black residents of the alley became involved.
O’Brien and Garriott did not communicate to the neighbors that they were cops, claiming later that they did not do so because Blacks don’t like police. Hawkins’ wife actually went into her apartment and tried to call the police, but did not get through to them. This was before the adoption of the 911 system, much less cell phones. She then returned to the scene with her own gun and fired off a shot that hit no one. More shots may have been fired, likely by O’Brien, perhaps by others as well.
Several witnesses claimed that O’Brien had yelled during the altercation “I want to kill a nigger so God damn bad I can taste it” and other such things. In the ongoing melee, O’Brien somehow dropped his gun, and took refuge under a taxi.
Garriott went for help, and returned with a private security guard in uniform. He took charge and ordered three Black people in the alley to stand spread-eagle up against a wall, an order they complied with. O’Brien came out from under the taxi and retrieved his gun. O’Brien then ordered George Baskett, who had come out of his apartment when he heard shots fired, to join the three others at the wall.
Baskett did not comply. Instead he picked up a stick of some sort and took a swing at O’Brien, perhaps trying to knock the gun from his hand. It is unclear whether or not Baskett hit O’Brien with the stick, but either way O’Brien then shot Baskett, who immediately fell to the ground.
O’Brien later claimed that he had been knocked off his feet by Baskett, and had fired his gun accidentally while falling backward. Others at the scene claimed that O’Brien pointed his gun at Baskett, counted to three, and then pulled the trigger. Several witnesses claimed that O’Brien kicked and stomped on the groaning Baskett after he went down.
In sum, the killing of George Baskett in 1968 was the end result of a dispute about a minor traffic accident, just as the murder of George Floyd in 2020 was the result of a dispute over an allegedly counterfeit $20 bill.
Eventually on-duty cops arrived at the scene. Several of the Black neighbors were arrested, including the brother of the dead Baskett, Hawkins, Hawkins’ wife and Hawkins’ stepson – but not O’Brien. The arrested neighbors were later released without charges.
O’Brien spent the next several days at SF General under police guard, supposedly recovering from the wounds he received at the scene of the crime. While O’Brien was recuperating at SF General, Chief of Police Thomas Cahill publicly called the shooting “accidental and in self-defense” – the conclusion reached by officers who had conducted the first investigation.
This pronouncement produced an uproar and a call for Cahill’s resignation from Rev. Cecil Williams of Glide Memorial Church. Subsequently, even before O’Brien had been released from SF General, Cahill reversed himself and suspended O’Brien from the force for “unofficerlike conduct.”
By any standard, 1968 had been a hard year. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated, leading to the most sustained Black uprising in US history, far surpassing anything seen since the Civil War. The war in Vietnam was raging at a fever pitch. Robert Kennedy had been shot and killed in Los Angeles. Bloody conflicts were breaking out at universities and colleges throughout the country, drawing both white and Black students into the fight. The police riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago had taken place just a month before the confrontation on Brush Place.
The district attorney at the time of the killing of Baskett was John Jay Ferdon. Ferdon had served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors from 1952 through 1964, including a stint as President of the Board. Ferdon became District Attorney in 1964, and was DA for several tumultuous years in San Francisco history, until Joseph Freitas defeated him in the 1975 election. Freitas, of course, later became infamous for the half-hearted prosecution of ex-cop Dan White, the killer of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone.
The initial police report on the incident in Brush Place, not surprisingly, cleared O’Brien of any culpability in the killing of Baskett. Subsequently, however, Captain of Inspectors Willison Lingafelter signed a complaint charging O’Brien with murder. O’Brien was arrested, but then released without bail. His quick release was roundly criticized. O’Brien was then rearrested, and then released again, this time on $25,000 bail.
Half of the bail money was put up by real estate mogul Louie Lurie, the father of former Giants owner Bob Lurie. “He’s accused of murder,” said Louie Lurie. “If this is a murder case, I’m the Pope of Rome.” The Police Officers Association later presented Lurie with a plaque for helping to put up O’Brien’s bail.
After some more legal maneuvering on the part of O’Brien’s attorney, J. W. “Jake” Ehrlich, and prior to any preliminary hearing on the charge, the DA’s office submitted the case to the Grand Jury. The DA’s office claimed that this move was to avoid delays being sought by O’Brien’s attorney. Behind the closed doors of the Grand Jury room, the murder charge was somehow dropped and changed to manslaughter. Although a lesser charge than murder, manslaughter still carried a potential prison term of from one to 15 years.
It is not exactly clear what was going on in DA Ferdon’s mind during this legal ping-pong game. According to a March 29, 1969 San Francisco Chronicle article, Ehrlich claimed that “O’Brien was the victim of a political power play, which… was engineered by Mayor Joseph Alioto to collect ‘a few lousy dirty votes’ from minority groups.” Uh huh. At the trial, Ehrlich charged that O’Brien was a “sacrificial goat” because an attorney representing the Baskett family “and some black brethren” demanded it, and called the District Attorney’s Office “prejudiced and biased.”
The trial began in January 1969, presided over by Judge Joseph Karesh. Karesh had previously gained fame for presiding over the trial that convicted Black Panther leader Huey Newton of murder, a conviction that was later reversed. Karesh later presided over the first several months of pre-trial proceedings in the Los Siete de La Raza case. The O’Brien trial itself took place against the backdrop of the prolonged student strike at San Francisco State, which had begun the previous November.
Hardly surprisingly for the times, the jury selected was all white – seven men and five women. Ehrlich used a peremptory challenge to eliminate the one potential Black juror on the panel, having remarked during the jury selection process about “white man-black man entanglement.” One of the women jurors selected was my aunt, Gay Norton.
The press covered the trial on a nearly daily basis. The courtroom was generally packed with spectators. The trial went on for ten long weeks.
Ehrlich was a flamboyant attorney who represented the Police Officers Association for many years. His other clients included Howard Hughes, Billie Holliday, Errol Flynn, Artie Samish, Sally Stanford and, as the Chronicle described in his obituary, “an endless stream of women accused of killing their husbands.”
Not long after the trial began, Baskett’s widow gave birth to a baby girl at Mt. Zion Hospital.
One of the most dramatic moments of the trial came after a young white student, David Anderson, testified that he lived nearby and witnessed the shooting from the roof of his apartment building, and put the blame for the shooting squarely on O’Brien. Anderson also testified that after O’Brien shot Baskett, O’Brien put a gun to the head of one of the men still up against the wall and told him “Just give me an excuse, just give me a reason. I’ll shoot you.” Anderson further testified, along with others, that O’Brien threatened to shoot the neighbors who were watching the scene from their windows.
Ehrlich tried to discredit Anderson, claiming that he was a sympathizer of the Students for a Democratic Society, of the Black Panthers, and of the strikers at SF State. He put a cop on the stand who testified that Anderson lived with a Black Panther named Richard E. Brown, and that Brown was in the courtroom. When the cop pointed out Brown, according to the Chronicle, Ehrlich “shocked” the courtroom and
“…whirled abruptly toward the audience, and thrusting a hand toward Brown he demanded ‘What’s your name, boy? Stand up!’
“Brown, still sitting, said ‘My name’s not boy, it’s Richard E. Brown.’
“Judge Joseph Karesh then interrupted, requested that Brown stand up and pointed out that he might have found the use of the word ‘boy’ offensive.
“Ehrlich then continued: ‘Well, I’m put out. I don’t like this childish infantile feeling that someone’s trying to offend these people. I’ve fought for them, defended them without fee… and I won’t take any backtalk out of them.”
Ehrlich still couldn’t contain himself. He went on:
“He loudly declared, facing the jury [including my Aunt Gay] that his father and his grandfather had called him ‘boy,’ adding ‘I don’t think it’s disgraceful. I don’t understand these people. I don’t hate these people. I have no feeling.’ ”
If somebody can explain to me why Karesh didn’t hold Ehrlich in contempt for this racist diatribe, I am all ears.
Eventually it was established that police records showed that Brown lived in the same building as Anderson, but not in the same apartment.
Another dramatic moment occurred when O’Brien’s boating buddy Garriott testified that he had been accosted in the courthouse hallway by four Black men, who allegedly threatened to kill him. When asked to identify the four men, he pointed the accused out, one of whom was Arnold Townsend, currently the Vice President of the San Francisco NAACP. Although the four men denied even talking to Garriott, Ehrlich demanded that they be arrested. Judge Karesh declined to order any arrest.
As the testimony in the trial was winding down, Judge Karesh directed the jury to disregard what they had already heard about an incident during which O’Brien had allegedly drawn his gun while off duty after a waitress supposedly hit him on the head with a glass. O’Brien claimed that he had pursued the waitress, while holding a water pistol.
When Ehrlich got his chance to sum up the defense case for the jury, he went on for a marathon of six days. He called the mostly Black witnesses that had testified against O’Brien variously “liar,” “punk,” “knucklehead,” “little fool,” “perjurer” and “killer.” He called Brush Place a “hellhole with some 200 hyenas in there.” He accused one of the witnesses of being paid to testify against O’Brien: “…somebody gave him something. Whoever did it isn’t entitled to be a living human being.” He accused Mayor Alioto of interfering somehow in the case because he was “looking for the minority vote,” and that some of the police brass wanted to make O’Brien “an offering on the altar of political correctness.” He claimed that if O’Brien was convicted, he might commit suicide. “If you don’t find O’Brien not guilty, there is only one answer – the Golden Gate Bridge.”
Ehrlich recited the names of each of the 12 jurors, and then told them “You are the emissaries of the Lord in finding truth and rendering justice.”
On March 20, the afternoon Examiner ran a banner headline: “JURY ACQUITS O’BRIEN.” The story on the same page that the hard-fought SF State Strike had come to an end took second billing. In fact, several Tactical Squad cops, in full regalia, having just come from SF State, were waiting outside the courtroom when the verdict came in, some of them having testified in O’Brien’s defense.
Immediately after the verdict was read, Jury Foreman John D. Abbott and another juror, Lois Hughes, joined an O’Brien victory party at a tavern across the street for a “cup that cheers.”
“The result clearly indicated the extent to which racial bigotry is in our system of justice,” said Clifford Jeffers, a deputy state attorney general and President of the San Francisco NAACP. Dr. Carlton Goodlett, the publisher of the Sun-Reporter, remarked that “there is still white justice and black justice.” Some things seem never to change.
One of the jurors, Gregory T. Le Vasseur, told the press that a ballot was taken shortly after the jury began its deliberations, and that the vote was 9 to 3 for acquittal. Le Vasseur reported that one of the votes for conviction quickly switched sides. But two holdouts remained – Le Vasseur and my Aunt Gay. The bitter deliberations went on for over three days.
In August 1969, San Francisco Magazine ran an article about the O’Brien trial, written by Godfrey Lehman, a journalist and author whose passion was writing about the jury system. Lehman relied heavily on extensive interviews with several of the jurors, including Le Vasseur and Aunt Gay. Aunt Gay had refused to talk to the press before being approached by Lehman. But she felt that Lehman correctly described her feelings about the case, and proudly gave me a copy of the magazine.
Both Le Vasseur and Aunt Gay reported being repelled by Ehrlich’s six-day tirade packaged as a summation of the case. They told the press that it was a lengthy racial slur. They said that witnesses were “grossly misquoted” and the evidence “deliberately twisted.” What’s more, they questioned the judge’s aim in allowing it to go on and on, with no restriction as to its length and content.
Lehman also uncovered reports of a variety of racial slurs and jokes used by the jurors during their time together.
Le Vasseur told Lehman that he thought O’Brien’s training as a police officer should have taught him how to avoid serious trouble in just this kind of situation. Instead, O’Brien was quick to anger and inflamed the situation until it got out of control. Le Vasseur and several other jurors reported that they tried to engage Judge Karesh in a discussion as to whether or not it would be proper to evaluate O’Brien’s actions in the light of his police training, but, in Le Vasseur’s words, Judge Karesh “dodged” the question.
“I felt the judge was trying to tell me he wanted acquittal, and I believed we had to follow his wishes. If even the judge was against me, I began to feel maybe I was wrong.” So Le Vasseur switched his vote.
“It was one of the worst mistakes I’ve ever made,” Le Vasseur told Lehman. “I am thoroughly convinced of O’Brien’s guilt and malice, and I learned from an attorney afterward I should have considered his action in the light of his police training. The judge really evaded the issue. I was tricked and deceived. As a policeman, O’Brien could have known, or at least should have, how to prevent the entire controversy, let alone the killing. If the instruction had been delivered properly, I would have resisted as long as the judge desired to keep us locked up.”
But Le Vasseur did switch his vote to acquittal. That left Aunt Gay the lone vote for conviction.
Aunt Gay had worked most of her life as a salesperson for high-end San Francisco department stores, including Saks Fifth Avenue and the long-gone Ransohoff’s. Her given name was Lillian, but everyone called her Gay. She had never married, and had no children. She did, however, help raise me and my brother after our parents split up, and we ended up being brought up by our father. Aunt Gay had a number of good friends, but now found herself entirely alone in the jury room. It was now the third day of jury deliberations.
“I could no longer stand the extreme pressure placed upon me by the majority voters,” she told Lehman. Like Le Vasseur, she told him that “I have never changed my conviction to this day of O’Brien’s deliberate malice and intent, but I had to switch because I could no longer resist physically.” She complained of running a fever and said she yielded from exhaustion. When the time came for the final vote, Le Vasseur reported that Aunt Gay could only whisper “not guilty.” Her doctor confined her to bed for more than a week after the trial was over.
Much later, after Aunt Gay’s passing, I found some notes she kept from the days of the trial.
One was a note to a fellow juror: “You may recall that some months ago I remarked that if my requirements were that my friends agree with me in all things, it would greatly diminish my circle of friends. So be it. One day, perhaps when you break a white and a brown egg, you will suddenly know what I mean, when I say that the good and bad are not determined by the color or the shape of the shell; or maybe you will never agree with me on that. At any rate… I thank you for your many kindnesses during the weeks of Hall of ‘questionable’ Justice… [and] in those last horrendous days.”
I also found a note by Aunt Gay that read “Judge after: it was a just decision and he was proud of us… it was decision he wanted…”
Despite his acquittal, O’Brien did not get off scot-free. The Police Commission decided to fire him for “unofficerlike conduct.”
Ehrlich made a pitch to the Police Commission to keep O’Brien on the force, but to no avail. At one point there was a heated exchange between Ehrlich and commissioner Dr. Washington Garner, after Ehrlich wanted to submit testimony about the “nature and the character of the people living in the alley.”
Garner, clearly upset, told Ehrlich “We will not permit any Mississippi backwoods trial here.” When Garner heard that the two cops had not identified themselves as officers during the altercation, he commented “I am surprised there were not more guns in that alley when you showed up with your gun without identifying yourself.”
O’Brien also sought to get disability payments from the state, but was denied as it was determined that his alleged injuries did not occur in the line of duty. O’Brien subsequently applied for a license to be a private detective.
Baskett’s widow later brought a civil suit against O’Brien and the City and County of San Francisco. During the trial Marilyn McLean, O’Brien’s girlfriend, testified that on the day of the killing of Baskett, O’Brien “reeked” of wine and was angry at her for repulsing his advances. Nevertheless, Baskett’s widow did not prevail.
Beyond these reported facts, O’Brien seems to have dropped from public view. I can find nothing to indicate whether or not he got his license to be a private detective. Perhaps he is still with us somewhere in the land of the living, or perhaps not.
Years later I found a letter in Aunt Gay’s things that her sister Minna must have forwarded to her. It was a letter Minna had received from a man, his name carefully crossed out, although the zip code the letter was sent from (95010 – Capitola, CA) was preserved. This gentleman had sent a copy of a press clipping about “Gay Norton” and the O’Brien trial, and asked Minna if this was not her sister. “If so,” he wrote:
“…you have a right to be proud of her. The O’Brien affair has left a nasty taste in the mouths of many people, like myself and Peggy [the gentleman’s wife] who regard the whole thing as yet another flagrant case of the San Francisco police behaving abominably.
“Jake Ehrlich, who was O’Brien’s lawyer, was a friend of ours when we lived in S.F. Guess what he gave Peggy for a wedding present – a free divorce!!! We had our wedding reception in the office of Louis Lurie, who owns half of the financial district in S.F. Jake was there, of course, since he is very close to Lou…
“Unfortunately, there have been far too many instances of police officers shooting at people for no apparent good reason, and then getting off scot-free. Frankly, I just can’t believe the S.F. Police Department is entirely staffed by angels – I knew too many of them when I was a columnist in that city. I have nothing but admiration for Gay for holding on for as long as she did, in spite of what must have been tremendous pressure.”
Judge Karesh died in 1996. Chronicle obituary mentioned nothing about the O’Brien case.
“Jake” Ehrlich died in his sleep on Christmas Eve in 1971, at the age of 71. That day he had shared lunch at Jack’s with Louie Lurie.
Copyright © 2020 by Marc Norton.