United States v. Dellinger Historic Case

At a Glance

Date Filed: 


Case Description 

United States v. Dellinger is a criminal case in which the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) challenged the Justice Department’s misuse of the grand jury process in conducting its investigation of the protests during the 1968 Democratic Convention. In this now-infamous case, CCR attorneys represented the “Chicago Eight,” who were charged with conspiracy, inciting to riot, and other charges related to the Democratic Convention protests.

The Democratic Convention in 1968 was viewed by many as a test of the ability of U.S. political structures to respond to the issues of the day. The war in Vietnam and the mistreatment of Black, Third World, and poor people had been debated and fought on an unprecedented scale.

When thousands of Americans sought to assert their belief that the convention was divorced from the people, they were exposed to municipal-sanctioned police brutality. While this treatment was long familiar to the Black residents of Chicago, the presence of out-of-town delegates and news media focused national and international attention on Chicago’s “state of siege.”

In the aftermath of the police riot, Chicago officials pressed for prosecutions of the demonstrators, but the Justice Department found no basis for prosecution. This was quickly remedied by President Richard Nixon when he came to office in January 1969. In two months, conspiracy indictments were handed down against eight persons, most of whom were leaders of protest movements. They came to be known as the “Chicago Eight.”

With the return of “conspiracy” prosecutions against political activists, a practice used extensively in the Smith Act prosecutions of the 1950’s, CCR attorneys played a leading role from the outset and challenged the Justice Department’s investigation.

Following the indictments, CCR and other attorneys prepared a battery of pre-trial motions that formed the basis of motions used in many future political prosecutions, raising such issues as illegal electronic surveillance, the hand-picking of the judge and prosecutor for the trial, and the unconstitutionality of the anti-riot statute.

At the conclusion of the 21-week trial, seven defendants were acquitted of conspiracy charges but convicted of contempt, and five were found guilty of violating the anti-statute riot. They received the maximum sentence. The eighth defendant, Bobby Seale, who had been bound, gagged, and then separated from the case, was also convicted of contempt.

CCR attorneys prepared a 550-page appeal brief, and in 1972 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit unanimously overturned the convictions, severely criticizing trial judge Julius Hoffman and the prosecutor.

The Supreme Court denied certiorari for the case on March 5, 1973.