Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

AMBUSH: THE BRINKS ROBBERY OF 1981

The Wheels of Justice Turn

The first state trial took place in Goshen, New York, a small upstate village where increased security procedures were put into place that most cops had never seen before. The notorious violence of the Brink's gang was widely publicized by then and their propensity for breaking their friends out of jail was well known. There were many rumors in Rockland County that summer that Jeral Williams and the B.L.A. would be trying for a mass jailbreak. Everywhere around the Orange County Courthouse, there were dozens of cops armed with shotguns and automatic weapons. They were taking no chances.

Judge David S. Ritter sat on the bench, a jurist who tried to keep peace in the courtroom while at the same time, ensure the rights of unpopular defendants. Judith Clark, David J. Gilbert and Donald Weems were the first of the Brink's robbers to go on trial. But they declined to use an attorney and chose to defend themselves. They sat at the defense table together and at every opportunity attempted to give lectures in court about the proceedings, which they felt were unjustified. When things didn't go their way at the very beginning of the trial, they shouted slogans at the judge and walked out. "Death to U.S. imperialism!" screamed Judith Clark. "All the oppressors will fail!" said Gilbert. Their contention was that since they did not recognize the authority of the United States, the trial itself was an illegitimate extension of that baseless authority.

"We are at war and have no respect for the laws, the verdict or the sentence. We will continue to maintain our position as freedom fighters!" they said. More than half the time the court was in session, the defendants boycotted the trial. They called the robbery an "expropriation" of funds that were needed to form a new country in a few select southern states that ideally would be populated only by blacks.

The defendants called only one witness, Nathaniel Burns, AKA Sekou Odinga, who claimed to be a soldier in the B.L.A. He said that his organization was "fighting for the liberation and self-determination of black people in this country." Burns testified that the killings were suitable because the three dead men had interfered with the "expropriation" and therefore deserved to die. In his view, the theft of money was morally justified because those funds "were robbed through the slave labor that was forced on them and their ancestors."

Clark and Gilbert, who sat in respectful silence while Burns testified, seemed impressed. When Burns completed his testimony, Gilbert thanked him profusely. "I just want to greet you, Comrade Odinga, and express my respect for you for twenty years of commitment, self-sacrifice for the New Afrikan people, and all oppressed people. Stay strong and I am really thrilled to have someone speak the truth in this courtroom for a change. Free the land!" Gilbert said.

But the jury wasn't swayed by the often rambling, arrogant testimony of Burns, who was already convicted of federal charges concerning other armored car robberies and shootings. On September 14, 1983, the jury, after deliberating four hours, found the defendants guilty of all charges. When the verdict was announced, Clark, Gilbert and Weems decided not to appear in court. They remained in the basement holding cells, drinking coffee and railing against, what they perceived to be, a racist court system.

"I don't think any interest is served by forcing them to be here," said Judge Ritter. Rockland County D.A. Kenneth Gribetz told reporters: "We're upset, frankly, there's no death penalty. Our goal is to see that these people, who have contempt for society and have shown no remorse, will never see the streets of society again!" Judge Ritter apparently agreed. On October 6, 1983, he sentenced each defendant to three consecutive 25-years-to-life prison terms.

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