K was more than ready for the culture and stimulation that New York City can bring. But the beginnings of his new life came to a screeching halt on January 30, 1974, at the late hour of 2 a.m. inside the 149th and Third Avenue subway station. He jumped a turnstile, an act in itself so trivial that it might be summarized in legalese as a “35-cent Theft of Service.”
At that moment, the subway token booth clerk, an elderly Black woman, screamed. K looked around to see who was being murdered. Instead, the woman was looking accusingly at him. As he remembers it, a transit policeman was standing nearby on the platform and approached him. They argued about whether he had paid the fare. For whatever reason, K wasn’t of a mind to confess—a denial that would nearly cost him his life.
The transit policeman, who was fairly new to the force, grabbed him by the arm. As K tried to slip free, a nightstick with a metal tip flew out of nowhere and began hitting him on his head. Blood gushed from the newly opened wound and a flash of white light shot through K’s brain. A scar is still visible on his forehead where the officer struck him with his nightstick.
At that point, Kenyatta blacked out and fell to the ground.
According to a composite of K’s own accounts written in prison:
A thunderous shock to the top of my head made me become conscious again… I woke up in my body while lying stretched out face down on the platform in a pool of blood. A small cone-shaped mound of bloody debris sat ominously inches from my nose… Mentally lost and disoriented: I fought and struggled against the force of a slippery hand for a gun I felt inside of a holster; and gaining control, I began firing the gun at a blurred image that swiftly darted out of my vision. I could not see who or what I was shooting at, because my own blood covered my eyes, blocking my vision. all I knew was that my life was in danger of being snuffed out by somebody… I was not even aware that I had had a confrontation with the cop… I was devoid of any memory, at the instance of the violent struggle that had transpired earlier between us; the police brutality that had nearly just taken my life. I was in no-man’s land…
After having to physically fend off a phalanx of ‘New York’s Finest:’ i was taken to Lincoln Hospital where an alert and sympathetic black surgeon, sutured my head wounds. I was still suffering blackouts due to the large amount of blood I had lost, but I was not aware of it at the time. I would go in and out of those blackout stages for the remainder of that night.
The account put forward by the prosecution would differ in a few significant ways.
On January 30, 1974, the plaintiff observed the defendant attempt to jump a turnstile at the 149th Street IRT subway station in the Bronx. In apprehending the defendant, a struggle ensued, and the plaintiff was knocked to the ground. The defendant wrested the plaintiff’s service revolver and shot at the plaintiff six times; five of the shots hit the plaintiff in the legs. As a result of his injuries, the plaintiff could not return to work as a police officer for 10 months. The New York State Workers’ Compensation Board determined that the plaintiff had lost 15 percent of the use of his right leg and 17½ percent of the use of his left leg.
Preparing for trial
There were three judicial events spanning several years: a trial, a retrial, and a partial reversal of the retrial. Although initial charges had to do with assault, the actual charges going to court were attempted murder and criminal possession of a weapon (the policeman’s gun).
The subway incident had become politicized because K’s adversary was a policeman. Moreover, K couldn’t even begin to present his real case because at that time there were no legal grounds to claim self-defense in dealings with the police in New York State.
The three witnesses for the prosecution, two clerks and a porter, were, like the plaintiff, employees of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and so it might be fair to suggest that they were inclined to agree with their coworker, a member of Metropolitan Transportation Authority Police Department. K had only himself and his own troubled memory of events.
On the other hand, his situation—he had no criminal history and a solid group of friends—did help to rally many of his acquaintances and a growing group of community supporters. K’s assigned counsel from Legal Aid was “a young, white guy… On the legal side, he was sharp.” But his supporters formed a committee and hired Attorney James Carroll from the National Conference of Black Lawyers, thinking Carroll would better understand and represent him.
Needless to say, K accepted. According to a written summary of events that he wrote while in prison: It was ‘Black Power’ time in America—I was not opposed to the move…it never occurred to me that the powers-that-be saw me as this unknown black radical or revolutionary who must be incapacitated by whatever means possible.
Our criminal justice system is often a form of theatre in which the best-paid actors most frequently win. And K, being a Brother from Another Planet with minimal resources of his own, was performing on the wrong stage and speaking to the wrong audience.
In defiance of his situation, he chose to show up at his initial arraignment in his pajamas with a bandaged head and dried blood still on his face. Because of his rather informal dress, the arraignment judge never cared to acknowledge his presence, sentencing him to be held without bail and remanded to the Bronx County Jail. From there, K would continue to make his appearance in court in the same hospital pajamas, or even just a pair of boxer shorts!
One bit of irony from the court’s mistakes was classifying him as a “John Doe,” and then as of South American origin since the name “ibn Kenyatta” didn’t check out legally. This mistake was fostered in part because K, under either “Kenyatta” or “Bennett,” was a no-show in the criminal database. The fact that this bit of confusion persisted for years beyond the trial was a by-product (one of many) of what had been nothing less than a complete breakdown in communication.
The first trial
The first official trial against John Doe A/K/A Iben Kenyatta #310/74 began on April 26, 1974, nearly four months after the subway incident. K was shackled when he refused to sit down after entering the courtroom. Both his hands and feet were chained to a chair throughout the proceedings.
One of the more telling discoveries from the first trial was the transit policeman’s testimony that he had yelled out to a railroad porter (one of the three MTA employees at the scene), “Come and give me a hand. Hold him down, otherwise, I’ll have to hit him again and kill him.” But when cross-examined during the second trial, the policeman said he couldn’t remember making that statement. Nevertheless, another MTA employee corroborated the statement, adding, “If he hit him again he would have killed him,” which suggests a more than credible basis for K’s fearing for his life.
And there were other inconsistencies. The plaintiff was allowed to remain in possession of one of the possibly more critical pieces of evidence, his tattered pants, which might have shown him in a more aggressive role based on K’s bloodstains than his testimony bore out. He also allegedly retained possession of a second, concealed gun, which K maintains was used to shoot at him to threaten him. Neither fingerprint samples nor residue tests were taken on the weapon in question.
Many of K’s sympathizers sat in the courtroom for moral support. They also marched outside with signs that read: If the police are to protect us from the criminals, who will protect us from the police?! It was the first time the slogan was used. As America is witnessing now along sadly similar lines of contention, Black Lives Matter and the events after Ferguson and Minneapolis have made the idea behind this 1974 protest timelier than ever.
On May 9th, the trial ended in a hung jury, while K remained in Bronx County Jail to await retrial.
The second trial
A new trial began on October 7, 1974. There K faced an all-white jury, in contrast with the mixed racial background of the first. He retained the same attorney. But in yet another self-destructive move, K got permission to remain out of court. Aside from alienating the jury, it also cost him many of his supporters: when my people learned that I would boycott the trial—they refused to come to court because they would not be able to see me.
In 2009, Safiya graciously went into her archives and dug up an excerpt of the court transcript—the testimony of Dr. William Watkins, the Senior Surgery Resident at the Lincoln Hospital, who supervised the treatment of Kenyatta’s wounds on the night of the incident.
“I noticed a man that was being escorted into the emergency room, covered with blood about the face and chest, and I went over immediately to triage this patient… At that time it appeared that he was bleeding from the head, which was reported to be caused by a bullet…”
Based on events, it wasn’t from a bullet, but from a nightstick with a metal tip.
“The laceration was sutured, and I requested a skull X-ray for the patient, to determine whether or not the skull had been fractured… About twenty minutes later the patient came back from the X-ray suite, and he was still bleeding. So my initial impression was that the Resident who sutured the laceration either didn’t do an adequate job or that maybe there were hidden injuries.
“So I removed the dressings, explored the scalp, and found another laceration… I requested that the entire head be, you know, completely shaved, and I discovered about four more lacerations of a similar nature in the scalp.”
Seeing this, and because of other indications and complaints, Dr. Watkins had new X-rays taken over all of K’s skull, his rib cage, and his entire abdomen. There he would find three more lacerations. In addition, K had a hematoma on the left hand—a small hemorrhaging in this case, a purple bruise from intense impact. K also had an “edema over the right zygomatic arch,” or an inflammation above the cheekbone. Standard online pictures look like the kind of swelling boxers get around the eye after a bad fight. K’s ribs were also tender, although not fractured.
His attorney ascertained through cross-examination that the lacerations were consistent and so delivered by the same instrument. They could have been, as presented in the testimony, easily delivered by a nightstick.
Dr. Watkins also did a blood count in part because he was worried about damage to K’s internal organs, especially the spleen. But instead, the blood test exposed a very different condition.
“I had the intern draw a complete blood count…
“The blood sugar on the patient was more than twice normal and this is the type of picture that one sees in a diabetic patient and when asked if he had diabetes the patient replied, ‘no.’”
Dr. Watkins did a urine test to validate that diabetes wasn’t in the picture. The real reason for the elevated sugar content was stress as K feared for his life.
“Normal blood sugars would range between 70 and 105… This blood sugar was 225… the only assumption that could be made then was that this was a stress reaction causing an elevated blood sugar… Stress is trying to adapt to an obnoxious or threatening set of circumstances. It’s one of the oldest physiological pathways known in medicine. When an animal is subjected to fear or rage his body redistributes glucose in a pure form so that he can use it so that he could either fight or flee… It just prepares the animal to cope with his environment when he’s taxed.”
Despite this testimony and other evidence, the jury deliberated for no more than two hours before it decided that K was guilty of far more than jumping a turnstile and a panicked reaction when he felt his life was being threatened. On October 25, 1974, he received a term of twenty-one years to life for attempted murder.
K and his supporters were stunned, living as they were in an idealistic haze that seems to have thoroughly obscured the actual machinery driving the mid-seventies criminal justice system.
On May 11, 1976, the New York State Appellate Division, First Department, in a Memorandum Decision, modified the sentence down from the original twenty-one years to fifteen years to life, ruling that the original sentence had been “too harsh” and “excessive.” The Court’s decision also pointed out that K was unarmed at the time of the incident and that he had no prior record of any criminal conviction. Nevertheless, and most unfortunately, the charge remained “attempted murder.”
Compared to Sal’s tidal wave of attention, newspaper coverage about K at the time was sparse. One gets the sense that even the media, with its ready formulae for oversimplification, found the incident too perplexing to package neatly for their readers.
Just one example should suffice to show how the press tried to condense the complexities surrounding K’s subway encounter and his trials into simple sentences, even when their words carry with them the weight of absurdity.
“Draws 21-Yr Sentence After He Boycotts Trial”
New York Post, Monday, November 25, 1974
A man who tried to kill a transit police officer to avoid being arrested for jumping a subway turnstile and then refused to participate in his trial was sentenced today to 21 years to life.
In his mid-20s, the defendant, who has stubbornly refused to give authorities any information about himself other than an unverifiable name, Ibn Kenyatta, will not be eligible for parole until 1985…
On the first day of the trial he appeared in court wearing pajamas and a fatigue jacket and told Supreme Court Justice William Drohan “this is a hypocritical, racist, corrupt and unjust system that has endured nothing but misabusing and misusing the people of this country.”
Drohan, with the agreement of the defense lawyer, then allowed Kenyatta to be tried, in effect, in absentia.
It’s almost impossible to gauge K’s intense, personal sense of innocence by the strict statutes of the law. Clearly, the policeman overreacted. K also overreacted, in indignation or anger, initially, and then in terror of losing his life.
My own judgment is that at a minimum this situation was hugely mishandled. Two people with no criminal history get into a misunderstanding that results in serious injury to both and an imponderable prison sentence for one.
One is a sensitive, talented, writer, and artist with indignation arising from his acute awareness of the Black situation in America. The contributions he can make to society, even behind bars, will become real and significant.
The other is a transit authority policeman, relatively new to the force.
Still, one of them is paid to be professional in these moments of confrontation.
I believe the job description is “keeping the peace.”