UPDATE: Jan. 24, 2023, 9:04 a.m. — Unfortunately, “American Justice on Trial” did not make the cut for Oscar nominations Tuesday morning. The five nominees for Best Documentary Short are:

  • “The Elephant Whisperers”
  • “Haulout”
  • “How Do You Measure a Year?
  • “The Martha Mitchell Effect”
  • “Stranger at the Gate”

EARLIER:

When nominations for the 95th-annual Oscars are announced early Tuesday morning, Rock Island’s Mali Benvenutti hopes her mom’s name is on the list.

Award-winning author and filmmaker Lise Pearlman made the Academy Awards shortlist for her documentary short film “American Justice on Trial: People v. Newton” (for docs running 40 minutes or less). Fifteen films were named to the shortlist and five will get Oscar nominations; the ceremony will be held March 12 in Los Angeles.

“American Justice on Trial” was shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short.

Pearlman, a 73-year-old retired California judge, has written three books about the landmark 1968 murder trial of Black Panther Party leader Huey Newton. She spent the past 10 years working to get that story made into a documentary, and the 40-minute film premiered in April 2022 to a standing ovation at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

There were 98 documentary shorts eligible for 2023 Oscars, and the 15 named to the shortlist were announced Dec. 21, Pearlman said Monday night in an exclusive interview with Local 4.

The first book on the Newton subject Pearlman wrote was on Fay Stender, a pioneering criminal defense lawyer who was co-counsel for Newton, “which was very rare,” she said.

When Pearlman went to law school at UC-Berkeley in the early ‘70s, women represented just 3 percent of all attorneys in the Golden State. Stender died in 1980.

Lise Pearlman is a retired California judge and award-winning author and lecturer.

“Fay’s specialty was prisoner’s rights and I got interested in that,” she said. “The case that made her internationally famous was the Newton trial. One thing I realized as I researched her life and the trial was, I didn’t know how the trial resonated with other scholars.”

Stender thought it was “one of the most important trials of the 20th century,” Pearlman said, noting most historians had ignored it. “I was surprised because I thought she was right. That’s why I got interested in writing that book about the Newton trial itself.”

Her third book compared other major trials to other cases to the Newton trial.

“American Justice on Trial” the book (which came out in 2016) incorporates interviews with all the people who appear in the film.

Pearlman was an undergraduate in Yale’s first class to include women (1971). She moved to the Bay Area for law school and has lived most of her career in Oakland, where the Black Panther Party was headquartered and Newton faced trial.

Pearlman was the first Presiding Judge of the California State Bar Court and a former California trial lawyer. Following her retirement from the bench, she has become a best-selling author and nationally recognized speaker on famous 20th-century trials whose books have won multiple awards in the categories of law, U.S. History, and multicultural nonfiction.

Pearlman’s latest book, “The Lindbergh Kidnapping Suspect No.1 — The Man Who Got Away” was Amazon’s #1 Best Seller in Criminal Evidence in December 2021.

Move for Augie job

Mali Benvenutti and her husband Derek Glasgow moved to Rock Island from Georgia last year when he got a job teaching political science at Augustana College. He taught political science at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., from 2015 to 2022.

Mali Benvenutti and her husband, Derek Glasgow, who teaches at Augustana.

The couple was thrilled to attend the doc’s premiere and to learn it was among the 15 shorts to make the Academy Award shortlist.

“It’s pretty exciting,” Benvenutti said Monday. “It took them 10 years to get this finished; they had to raise the money. I wondered if this was ever actually going to happen. It’s such a great story, and when we saw the two-minute preview, it was surreal.”

“It was amazing and going to the premiere, where it was sold out – this little theater, the Roxy Theatre in San Francisco, there was a standing ovation when it was done,” she said. “I got to see my mom’s name and my dad’s name in big print on the screen. It was surreal. I thought I was living in a dream.”

Mali and her mother, Lise Pearlman.

The case was hugely important in history, around the time of Vietnam War protests, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, Benvenutti said.

“It was a time of civil unrest and Oakland was – every eye of the nation and probably the world was on Oakland,” she said. “This was a case of the outspoken, militant leader of the Black Panthers.”

Everyone wondered if Newton would get a fair trial, especially with racism roiling American society in the late ‘60s, Benvenutti said.

People expected Newton to be found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. At the time of his arrest, Newtown was found to be unarmed.

A radically diverse jury

With Stender as co-defense attorney, the jury was incredibly diverse (and unheard of at the time). Instead of 12 white men, the Newton jury had a Black jury foreman (David Harper), seven women (including a Latina), a Japanese-American and a Cuban-American.

A sketch artist captured Huey Newton during his 1968 murder trial in Oakland.

“It was just groundbreaking in all areas,” Benvenutti said. “After that, the way they chose jurors was specifically modeled after they handled it in the Huey Newton trial, to make it more fair and that justice was being served.”

“What was shocking was they found him guilty of voluntary manslaughter – they didn’t convict him with a death sentence,” she said. “That was huge; that still was a controversial ending and it defused what was happening. If he had been convicted of murder, it likely would have turned out very differently.”

Amid the intense racial reckonings since the 2020 George Floyd murder at the hands of Minneapolis police, the documentary is especially relevant, Benvenutti said.

“There’s a lot of tensions right now, especially in Black and brown communities,” she said. “I feel like we’re at an inflection point again. I didn’t live through the ‘60s, but it feels like it looks like what was happening in the ‘60s, when people were protesting in the streets.”

Civil rights was a major topic in the news, then and now.

Huey Newton in jail meeting with Defense Attorney Charles Garry (courtesy of Associated Press).

“I feel like in some ways, not a lot has changed since the ‘60s,” Benvenutti said. “Hopefully, this film will show how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.”

“The jury probably avoided national riots with the verdict,” Pearlman said. One person she interviewed for the Fay Stender book was a veteran documentarian, Bob Richter, who did 100 films and worked with the legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow.

Pearlman started a nonprofit, the Arc of Justice Productions, to raise $500,000 to make the short film, which has won film festival awards.

“The main reason I did it because this trial galvanized the diversification of the American jury,” she said, noting it finally created a “jury of one’s peers.”

Protestors outside the Alameda County courthouse during the trial (courtesy of JusticeMovie.com).

“The defense team worked really hard to seat mostly women and minorities,” Pearlman said. “Nowadays, you take for granted women and minorities are on juries. The reason that came about is because a lawyer in Berkeley, California wrote a book about the Newton trial, called ‘Minimizing Racism in Jury Trials,’ that became the bible for defense lawyers nationwide.”

“The sky’s the limit”

The documentary (which started filming in 2013) is based on her 2012 book “The Sky’s The Limit.” It compared the Newton trial to other riveting American trials from 1901 to 1999, including legal battles featuring murder, rape and kidnapping, skeletons in celebrity closets, class warfare, fixing the World Series, evolution versus creationism, abuse of power and political conspiracy.

She recruited the film directors; wrote all the interview questions, and arranged people to be interviewed for the film. Harper (now 89) did his first post-trial interview for the film.

The movie’s composer John Lissauer also did the music for another Oscar shortlisted film (for documentary feature), “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song.”

The Newton film was directed by Andrew Abrahams and Herb Ferrette, and produced by Pearlman and Abrahams. Her husband, Peter Benvenutti, was executive producer with Jonathan Logan.

While Newton and his maverick attorneys boldly indicted racism in the courts and the country, and a groundbreaking jury led by a historic Black foreman deliberated Newton’s fate, the streets of Oakland and the nation were set to explode if the jury, as expected, returned a verdict of murder, according to the film synopsis.

Huey Newton and his defense team Charles Garry & Fay Stender hold a press conference after the verdict (photo by Ilka Hartmann).

His defense team insisted he had acted in self-defense.

The film directors retained voice actors to bring the court transcripts to life. Cameras were not permitted in court at the time; with no courtroom footage available, Abrahams and Ferrette hired a sketch artist to render scenes.

In the end, the jury led by Harper returned a verdict of not guilty of first-degree murder, but found Newton guilty of voluntary manslaughter. In 1970, the conviction was tossed out and two retrials resulted in hung juries.

An unhappy ending

On Aug. 22, 1989, Huey Newton was murdered in the Lower Bottoms section of Oakland, at age 47. Within days, Tyrone Robinson was arrested as a suspect; he was on parole and admitted the murder to police, claiming self-defense  –  though police found no evidence that Newton was carrying a gun.

Newton himself was murdered in Oakland in 1989 at age 47.

In 1991, Robinson was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to a prison term of 32 years to life.

In response to “American Justice on Trial,” here are two of the many rave reviews for the film:

“Stunning…brings renewed attention to one of the most important trials of the last century, a legal show-down that succeeded against all odds in overcoming the racial bias of the nation’s criminal justice system.” – Gar Smith, Berkeley Daily Planet

“Absolute must-see doc is a scrapbook of historical memories, both bitter and hopeful….Great period footage and dramatic editing bring the landmark trial to life.” – Kelly Vance, East Bay Express

Pearlman said the 40-minute length is ideal to be shown in classrooms, and should encourage adults not to ignore jury summons. “Because it’s very important for defendants that people show up for jury duty,” she said.

The film was recently screened at Stanford University over Martin Luther King Day weekend, and Pearlman’s grandkids (ages 11 and 13) were able to watch it online through Stanford.

Herb Ferrette is co-director of the film, with Andrew Abrahms.

She’s working to have the film available to the public on a streaming platform, through the distributor.

Early Tuesday morning announcement

The Oscar nominations will be announced at 5:30 a.m. in California, and if nominated, Pearlman hopes to attend the L.A. ceremony at the Dolby Theatre.

“I told her I’d be her date if my dad couldn’t go,” Benvenutti joked. It may be a longshot, since many of the other short docs are backed by Netflix, HBO or other major Hollywood players, Pearlman said.

“We’re very excited about that; it’s a big achievement,” she said of making the shortlist. “It’s gonna do a lot for us to get it out, so people understand this story.”

Pearlman said she’s planned a big vacation three days after the Oscars, with her 80-year-old sister, to Iceland and Sicily.

Harper (who lives in St. Louis) was the very first person they interviewed, she said. “This is amazing for him, because he’s such a hero. I’m glad that people are getting to know what he did and how he did it. He praised the film for its accuracy and authenticity, and that’s huge.”

In 2015, Pearlman had a cameo appearance in Director Stanley Nelson’s PBS acclaimed documentary, “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” as the country’s leading expert on the 1968 Huey Newton Trial that transformed the American “jury of one’s peers” from the traditional 12 white men to the diverse panels Americans often take for granted today. 

​In statement from directors of the new doc, they wrote: “George Floyd was a tipping point, but racial profiling and excessive force against black people by police has been a reality in the U.S. for decades. It was the fulcrum of the 1968 Huey Newton trial which AMERICAN JUSTICE ON TRIAL depicts, and which the Black Panthers—co-founded by Newton—rallied against.

“The great lesson from People v. Newton was the importance of diversity among all players in the criminal justice system, including police, juries, attorneys and judges,” the film site says. “Diversity brings out better results. The Huey Newton trial was groundbreaking in shepherding this notion in the legal system, when a radically diverse jury, a black jury foreman, and the acknowledgment of racism in the legal system itself were seen as pivotal in creating a fairer trial and fairer outcome.

“In this light, our decision to have a white and black director matched the media and message of the film: diversity brings out better results.”

For more information, visit the film website HERE.