Sometimes you get a research project that seemingly turns into a dead end, but with a little creativity and persistence, you can turn things around. I had just such a research project in 2020, when a professor from Arts and Sciences, Atiya Husain, asked me to find trial transcripts from a number of criminal cases from the 1970s involving Assata Shakur*, then known as Joanne Chesimard, a member of the Black Liberation Army, for a book she was writing on the FBI Most Wanted list. Prof. Husain gave me a table copied from Wikipedia and asked me to track down the trial transcripts. In a month, because her manuscript was due.
I looked at the table and knew I was going to have some trouble with her request for a few reasons: 1) there were no case names or docket numbers that would allow me to locate the cases easily; 2) each one of these cases were from the 1970’s, which meant that their records would be archived, and archive requests under the best of circumstances would take more than a month; and 3) it was mid-2020, and therefore NOT the best of circumstances. Archives everywhere were closed, and I myself was working from home at the time. But did I say I couldn’t help? No! Because I am a professional, and I know a few things about finding stuff. And I’m going to teach you a few things about finding stuff, and how to approach a project from multiple angles when you think you just don’t have anything.
TIP 1: Clarify the request if you have to and set expectations.
I went back to Prof. Husain and explained to her the situation with the case numbers and archives. I asked her if there was anything in particular that she wanted me to focus on. As it turned out, she had read in Shakur’s autobiography that during the first phase of her federal trial for bank robbery in Queens, the judge had ordered the marshals to forcibly pull Shakur’s hair back to photograph her in order to compare the photo to a still from a surveillance tape. As you might imagine, all hell broke loose when the prosecution put hands on the defendant like that, and Shakur resisted. Then she was dogpiled by a number of marshals. All the while, her then-attorney, who was her aunt, narrated what was happening for the record. This was the transcript, and the particular part of the transcript, that Prof. Husain most wanted, though she still wanted the others if possible.
Great! So now I just had to figure out the case name and number. This didn’t prove so easy. Whenever I searched for the bank robbery trial, I got results for the other bank robbery trial. When I searched for just “Chesimard,” since that’s not a common name, I got information about her trial for killing a New Jersey state trooper, which had lots of appellate history. Or I got documents about her escape from a New Jersey prison and flight to Cuba, which is what landed her on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist list. I began to suspect her co-defendants were the named defendants, which is why I couldn’t find much of anything. It was time to ask for some help.
TIP 2: Ask for help if you need it.
At this point, I was pretty well stuck. But librarians are pretty plugged in, as people in the knowledge business, and I reached out to the listserv for law librarians’ professional association to see if anyone could help me. And I was in luck! I got a response from Mary Matuszak, who is the librarian for the New York County District Attorney’s Office. If anyone knows how to get transcripts of old cases, it’s Mary.
And Mary told me that there had been a pretty spectacular city warehouse fire a few years before that had destroyed about 40% of the old transcripts. And, in any event, there wouldn’t be any transcripts kept in the record unless there was a conviction and an appeal, because the transcripts would then be part of the appellate record. I was also told by some of the federal circuit librarians that even federal court clerks and librarians weren’t getting their requests fulfilled by the National Archives, which is where the records for the Queens bank robbery would be.
Seems like a dead end, right? Not quite!
TIP 3: Use your noggin and get creative!
I wasn’t quite ready to give up, partly because I was finding this whole project, and Assata Shakur herself, fascinating. There was one more angle I was going to try. While I was digging through Google, I found some news articles about the trial. I discovered that the federal judge from EDNY who started the trial in 1973 (and who ordered the marshal to pull back Shakur’s hair) was Jacob Mandel; the trial went into recess after that and by 1976, Shakur and her co-defendant Freddie Hilton were bringing a mandamus action against the new judge, Lee P. Gagliardi, for starting the trial when they’re not ready. Unfortunately, no case name or number in any of the news coverage.
I also discovered a series of courtroom sketches from a collection in one of the University of Virginia’s museums of the works of the sketch artist. I’d discovered this fairly early on, but they didn’t really take on much significance until I’d run out of other options. I was flipping through them and noticed that Shakur had some high-powered attorneys: William Kunstler and Florynce “Flo” Kennedy. Kennedy, as it turned out, helped Shakur represent herself for a short time after Evelyn Williams, Shakur’s aunt, dropped out; Kennedy also represented Shakur in a separate bank robbery trial.
I knew from looking at the table from Wikipedia that Shakur had been acquitted of the Queens bank robbery, so the trial transcript would not be likely to be there even if we could get the record from the National Archives. However, Flo Kennedy, being a good attorney, would probably have ordered daily copies of the trial transcript (and would have taken over Evelyn Williams’ files; Williams would have also ordered the transcripts). Moreover, Kennedy, being an important historical figure, most likely had her own papers preserved somewhere in an archive. And very likely those papers included her files from United States v. Chesimard, et al. And, lo and behold, Radcliffe has 17 folders of those files. How many of them are the Bronx robbery vs. the Queens robbery? It’s unclear, but that’s the best chance I have of finding these documents, so I gave the link to Prof. Husain, along with the Radcliffe Libraries request form.
So how do you turn research lemons into lemonade? By asking clarifying questions and setting expectations at the outset, asking for help if and when you need to, and getting creative with your sourcing and thinking. Try it on your next project!
* If the name sounds familiar, she was Tupac’s godmother.