January 16, 1985 A MURDER CONVICTION OVERTURNED AFTER 11 YEARS FOR FORMER NEW BEDFORD BLACK PANTHER LEADER Steve Curwood, Globe Staff The first-degree murder conviction of former New Bedford Blank Panther leader Frank (Parky) Grace has been overturned after he served nearly 11 years of a life sentence. Superior Court Justice Elizabeth J. Dolan made her ruling Friday following six days of hearings last July and September during which another man confessed to the murder. New evidence presented by the defendant, Dolan wrote, "appears so grave, material and relevant as to afford a probability that it would be a real factor with the jury in reaching a decision." Grace's attorneys, Richard J. Innis and Robert Thuotte of the firm of Hale and Dorr, contended that Grace was convicted by false testimony encouraged by the New Bedford Police. "We are very pleased with the court's decision," Innis said Friday. "Aside from the result, we appreciate Judge Dolan's conscientious, comprehensive and well-reasoned analysis of all of the evidence presented." Bristol County Dist. Atty. Ronald Pina said he has not decided whether his office would appeal Dolan's ruling, try the case again or drop the charges and free Grace. If Pina decides to press the case, Grace would be eligible for bail, his attorneys said. Shortly before midnight on Aug. 8, 1972, Marvin Morgan, a 19-year-old drug addict from Providence, was shot to death outside the West End Social Club on Kempton street in New Bedford while his friends Eric Baker and Jasper Lassiter watched, according to court testimony. During a January 1974 trial, Baker and Lassiter testified that Frank Grace shot Morgan. Ross Grace, Frank's younger brother, was an accomplice, the two said. But during last summer's hearing, Lassiter changed his story in favor of Frank Grace. "Frank's brother, Ross, shot Morgan," Lassiter said in an affidavit he signed in June. "I saw Frank Grace for the first time at his murder trial. Before my testimony, police officers told me that Frank would be sitting next to Ross in the courtroom and that I should testify that Frank fired the gunshot which killed Morgan." Baker, however, stuck by his original testimony. Dolan, who was sitting in Middlesex court when she announced her ruling, said on Friday that "the recantation of Jasper Lassiter of his trial testimony . . . constitutes newly discovered evidence." Dolan's ruling also shows that all the other 1974 witnesses except Baker corroborated Lassiter, despite some questions of credibility. At the same hearings, Ross Grace told Dolan that it was he and not Frank who shot Morgan in the chest with a .22 caliber Saturday night special. "Morgan and Baker had kidnaped me a month earlier and stole $800 from me," Ross Grace said in an interview. "So I decided to get a gun in case I ran into them again." When Ross confronted Morgan and Baker the night of the 8th, Frank Grace was across town at the Tropicana and Band clubs with friend Verne Rudolph, according to trial testimony. Frank Grace contends he was framed by police because he had rankled them as a leader of the Black Panthers. But the brothers also now admit they sabotaged Frank's case by having denied during the 1974 trial and four subsequent bids for new trials that Ross was involved. Both his attorney and brother had told him to stay quiet, Ross said. "My brother . . . (said) I shouldn't worry since he wasn't there and could prove it. How wrong he was." Frank Grace was convicted of first-degree murder and Ross of second-degree. Both received life sentences; Frank's had no possibility of parole. At 40, Parky Grace is compact and muscular. His smooth brown complexion and chiseled features reflect his ancestors on the African islands of Cape Verde. His hair is long and plaited in the style of the Caribbean mystics, the Rastafarians. Born poor in New Bedford, Grace has lived much of his life in controversy. He was a highly visible Vietnam veteran who protested the war. As leader of the New Bedford Panthers on the eve of a 1970 police raid, he was among those whose identity Channel 6 television reporter Paul Pappas tried to protect in what became the celebrated US Supreme Court Branzburg-Caldwell- Pappas case, which held that journalists do not to have an absolute privilege to protect sources. In an interview at Norfolk prison last September, Grace said his radicalism grew out of his experiences in Vietnam, although when in school he already was in conflict with police. "We used to hide out of sight . . . and when somebody gave the sign, we'd pelt police cars with rocks." At age 20, he said, he joined the Army and encountered blatant racial discrimination for the first time. In 1967, he shipped out to Vietnam to carry an M16 rifle for a combat engineeering company. "I had pictured people greeting us (in Vietnam) like I had seen in the movies, throwing flowers at us and we'd throw them candy. "Well, when I got over there, we were leaving the air base in a convoy when little boys (made obscene gestures) at us and started throwing rocks. "I got flashbacks when we were kids on the corner throwing rocks at the cops. That's what it reminded me of, and I said, 'Man, something's wrong here.' " Then, Grace said, he saw "a woman in the rice paddy, and the woman reminded me of my grandmother who had just died. She was a farmer, and this woman was a farmer, wearing a staw hat like my grandmother." Later, Grace said, he "became friendly (with some of the locals). They used to tell me, 'Ho Chi Minh, number one.' "I used to say,' No, no, he's a Communist.' "Then they asked me, 'Why are you here?' "Fighting for freedom.' "They say, 'You have freedom at home?' "Through them I started seeing, I didn't have any freedom." Grace said that when he got out of the Army and went home to New Bedford, he ran into his first antiwar rally. "The thought hit me - the Army got me, I'm a prostitute. I'm an international prostitute. I got very angry. I felt used." Grace joined the demonstrators, a group of white radicals, became friendly with them, and soon was reading Che Guevara and Malcolm X and helping to organize antiwar rallies. It was then that the FBI put Grace under surveillance, according to government documents obtained by his attorneys under the Freedom of Information Act. Several of us, he said, "then started a chapter of the National Committee to Combat Facism, the organizing arm of the Black Panthers." That was in the spring of 1970. New Bedford Police started arresting Grace regularly on a variety of charges. "Harassment," says Grace. "They arrested me over 40 times and never convicted me of anything" until the murder charge. Friday, that conviction became void. Grace contends he has spent more than a decade in jail as an innocent man because of official wrongdoing by the New Bedford Police Department and FBI. Grace has a suit pending against them in federal court.
Radical 'legend' never lost his fire