Quietly, quickly and in an atmosphere so subdued that the only public political orotest came from the defendant, the prosecution yesterday opened its case in the long-delayed murder trial of Black Panther Party Chairman Huey P. Newton.
In a statement that lasted 20 minutes, Alameda County prosecutor Tom Orloff told a mostly white jury that he intended to prove that Newton murdered Kathleen Smith, a 17-year-old prostitute, in the middle of an August night in 1974.
The evidence would show, Orloff said, that Newton and another man stopped their car that night at the Oakland street corner where Smith was working, that Newton got out of the car, and that Newton began to argue with Smith as she stood on the street.
The argument, Orloff said, "seems to be along the line that the defendant was upset because Kathleen Smith didn't know who he was and wouldn't show him the proper respect." Newton struck Smith and knocked her backward, Orloff said, "and then pulled out a small shoulder handgun and shot her in the neck. She went down... and the defendant soft of hestitated for a moment with a strange look on his face." Then he retreated treated to his car and sped off into the night, Orloff said.
Smith was taken to an Oakland hospital, unconscious, with a bullet entry wound on the right side of the neck and a gaping exit wound on the left side of her face. She was transferred to another hospital nearly three months later, and died on Oct. 31 of bronchial pneumonia that developed as a result of her extended coma. She never regained consciousness.
Orloff never spoke of the Black Panther Party. He did not discuss the much-publicized political life of its chairman, or the murder trial seven years ago when Newton -- flanked by thousands of ardent supporters -- was convicted in the same courthouse of killing an Oakland policeman (the conviction was later overturned).
He made a passing reference to Newton's three years of self-imposed exile after he jumped bail in August 1974. "Newton made bail, was released, and was not seen again in the state of California until he returned from Cuba in July of 1977," Orloff said.
Newton's face was alert but impassive, as it had been through the 4 1/2 days of jury selection, and at noon he walked outside the courthouse to talk to reporters.
"The district attorney has denied me a jury of my peers," he said. "Out of 15 blacks that went into the jury box, 14 of various ages were rejected with no reason at all."
The jury, selected after each side used 26 preemptory challenges consists of seven white women, two Asian women, two white men and one black man.
Newton said he plans to take the stand in his own defense, despite what he said was his attorney's advice to the contrary, and declared again, as he has for the past year, that the murder charge is part of a long-standing police conspiracy against him.
"It was a horrible thing that happened to the young woman, Kathleen Smith," he said, "but I am not responsible for it. I think this trial will reveal who's responsible for this conspiracy."
Newton's defense team, headed by attorney Michael Kennedy, suggested in the preliminary hearing that the prostitutes who are the chief prosecution witnesses may have been urged to identify Newton as Smith's killer in exchange for leniency from the Oakland police.
One of those women, a husky 20-year-old former prostitute named Michelle Jenkins, offered the first lengthy testimony in the prosecution's case.
She was working on the night of the shooting, she testified, sharing an Oakland street corner with Smith. She saw a new steel gray Lincoln Continental stopped near the corner, Jenkins testified. A young man approached her "and said Huey P. Newton would like to speak to me," Jenkins said. "I told him I didn't care who it was, I had nothing to say to him."
The man in the passenger seat of the car then got out, Jenkins said, "And that's when Kathleen got into it... He then asked her, was she speaking to him? She said no... He specifically said, 'Bitch, don't you know who you're talking to, who I am?'"
Then the fight began, Jenkins said, and Newton slapped Smith against a store window. "He pulled a handker-chief out of his pocket, and there was a gun that came after that," she said.
The man then shot Smith, Jenkins said. "Would you please point out where he is seated in the courtroom today?" Orloff asked. Jenkins did not look at Newton, but pointed toward him with her left hand. "He's seated at the same table you are, at the end," she said.