Ruchell was the longest held political prisoner in the U.S., having been locked up since 1963. He was originally jailed after he had been in L.A. for only 6 months and he and his cousin Leroy got in a fight over a $10 bag of marijuana. In court, the two ended up with trumped up charges of kidnapping and robbery and he was given life in prison. While in prison, Ruchell began learning the long and rich history of Black liberation history. He adopted the middle name of Cinque, after the enslaved African who led the takeover of the slave ship Amistad, which eventually lead to the freedom of all the slaves on board. He began petitioning his unjust sentence to no avail.
Although critically wounded on August 7, 1970, Magee was the sole survivor of the Marin County Courthouse Rebellion, leaving him to be charged with everything they could throw at him. Ruchell pled guilty to the charge of aggravated kidnapping for his part in the assault. In return for his plea, the Attorney General asked the Court to dismiss the charge of murder (Magee being the shooter of Judge Haley). Magee later attempted unsuccessfully to withdraw his plea, and was sentenced in 1975 to life in prison.
The Marin Courthouse Incident - “All right gentlemen, hold it right there. We’re taking over!”
Armed to the teeth, Jonathan Jackson, 17, George’s, younger brother, raided the Marin Courtroom and tossed guns to prisoners William Christmas and James McClain, who in turn invited Ruchell to join them. Ru seized the hour spontaneously as they attempted to escape by taking a judge, assistant district attorney and three jurors as hostages in that audacious move to expose to the public the brutally racist prison conditions and free the Soledad Brothers (John Clutchette, Fleeta Drumgo, and George Jackson).
McClain was on trial for assaulting a guard in the wake of Black prisoner Fred Billingsley’s murder by prison officials in San Quentin in February, 1970. With only four months before a parole hearing, Magee had appeared in the courtroom to testify for McClain.
The four revolutionaries successfully commandeered the group to the waiting van and were about to pull out of the parking lot when Marin County Police and San Quentin guards opened fire. When the shooting stopped, Judge Harold Haley, Jackson, Christmas, and McClain lay dead; Magee was unconscious and seriously wounded as was the prosecutor. A juror suffered a minor injury. In a chain of events leading to August 7, on January 13, 1970, a month before the Billingsley slaughter, a tower guard at Soledad State Prison had shot and killed three Black captives on the yard, leaving them unattended to bleed to death — Cleveland Edwards, “Sweet Jugs” Miller, and the venerable revolutionary leader, W. L. Nolen, all active resisters in the Black Liberation Movement (BLM) behind the walls (others included George Jackson, Jeffrey Gauldin (Khatari), Hugo L.A. Pinell (Yogi Bear), Steve Simmons (Kumasi), Howard Tole, and the late Warren Wells).
After the common verdict of “justifiable homicide” was returned and the killer guard exonerated at Soledad, another white-racist guard was beaten and thrown from a tier to his death. Three prisoners, Fleeta Drumgo, John Clutchette, and Jackson, were charged with his murder precipitating the case of The Soledad Brothers and a campaign to free them led by college professor and avowed Communist, Angela Davis, and Jonathan Jackson.
Magee had already spent at least seven years studying law and deluging the courts with petitions and lawsuits to contest his own illegal conviction in two fraudulent trials. As he put it, the judicial system “used fraud to hide fraud” in his second case after the first conviction was overturned on an appeal based on a falsified transcript. His strategy, therefore, centered on proving that he was a slave, denied his constitutional rights and held involuntarily. Therefore, he had the legal right to escape slavery as established in the case of the African slave, Cinque, who had escaped the Amistad slave ship and won freedom in a Connecticut trial. Thus, Magee had to first prove he’d been illegally and unjustly incarcerated for over seven years. He also wanted the case moved to the Federal Courts and the right to represent himself.
Moreover, Magee wanted to conduct a trial that would bring to light the racist and brutal oppression of Black prisoners throughout the state. “My fight is to expose the entire system, judicial and prison system, a system of slavery. This will cause benefit not just to myself but to all those who at this time are being criminally oppressed or enslaved by this system.”
On the other hand, Angela Davis, his co-defendant, charged with buying the guns used in the raid, conspiracy, etc., was innocent of any wrongdoing because the gun purchases were perfectly legal and she was not part of the original plan. Davis’ lawyers wanted an expedient trial to prove her innocence on trumped up charges. This conflict in strategy resulted in the trials being separated. Davis was acquitted of all charges and released in June of 1972.
Ruchell fought on alone, losing much of the support attending the Davis trial. After dismissing five attorneys and five judges, he won the right to defend himself. The murder charges had been dropped, and Magee faced two kidnap charges. He was ultimately convicted of PC 207, simple kidnap, but the more serious charge of PC 209, kidnap for purposes of extortion, resulted in a disputed verdict. According to one of the juror’s sworn affidavit, the jury voted for acquittal on the PC 209 and Magee continues to this day to challenge the denial and cover-up of that acquittal.
No Struggle No Progress: A Critical Interview with Ruchell Cinque Magee on the Marin Court House Shoot-Out by Gwendolyn Kennedy (1994)
Life in Prison:
Ruchell for many years worked tirelessly as a jailhouse lawyer, working on his own case and helping many other prisoners win their freedom.
On July 15, 2021, Ruchell was denied parole for the 16th time. In 2023, Ruchell Magee signed a petition for compassionate release after incessant work to challenge the legitimacy of his imprisonment. Ruchell was released from prison in August 2023 through the new California compassionate release law, Assembly Bill 960, which many prison justice organizations worked to put through. AB 960, which went into effect on Jan. 1, 2023, added Penal Code §1172.2 and changed the basis for compassionate release from six months left to live to someone who has a serious and advanced illness with an end-of-life trajectory or who is found to be permanently medically incapacitated.