Michelle Jenkins, the former prostitute who, in key prosecution testimony 11 days ago, swore that she saw Black Panther founder Huey P. Newton shoot another prostitute, recanted her testimony this afternoon.
Jenkins, who had said Newton murdered the girl after demanding, "Bitch, don't you know who I am?"to-day declared that she had not actually seen the shooting and that she had no idea who had actually committed the murder.
"I don't know who that man was," Jenkins said, slumped in the witness chair, her voice flat and small. She had seen a man with a gun on the street corner just before the shooting, Jenkins said. But "I can't say whether it was Mr. Newton or whether it was anybody else walking around in this courtroom right now. Because I don't know."
Why, prosecutor Tom Orloff asked softly, had she initially selected Newton's photograph from among a series of mug shots shown to her after the 1974 shooting.
"Because the photograph to the best of my ability was the most resemblance to the man that I saw on the corner," Jenkins said. "I don't know if they were the same person or not."
And why had she pointed out Newton as the shooter during the 1977 preliminary hearing? Why had she stuck by her story for the nearly five years since the shooting took place? Why had she pointed at Huey Newton less than two weeks ago and repeated her assertion that he had shot 17-year-old Kathleen Smith?
"It's just something that I was more or less -- to be blunt about it -- tricked into," Jenkins said. "There was a few little threats -- or maybe not threats -- accusations made when this thing first started .. it was just the whole thing about being locked up."
She was afraid of being locked up?
"Yeah, they may have... they made a deal about me not going to juvenile hall for running away from home... In my mind I was kind of scared to change it -- so I went along with it up until today."
Eleven days ago, Jenkins had walked into this Oakland courtroom in a graceful brown dress and fashionable boots, carrying in the prosecution's case against Newton, who has been charged with murdering Smith in the early morning hours of Aug. 6, 1974. With two planned prosecution eyewitnesses withdrawn at the last minute and a third ripped apart on the stand by character witnesses, Jenkins' sullen but composed testimony was vital to the prosecution's case.
The woman who walked into court today as a surprise witness for the defense might have been an entirely different person -- hair awry, and wearing tight green pants, a red leotard, and an unbuttoned shirt.
Her voice was barely audible as she answered defense attorney Michael Kennedy's questions: Had she phoned him from Los Angeles? "Yes." Had she said she wanted to change her testimony078 "Yes." Was it because she had been lying before? "Yes." And finally, was Huey P. Newton, the man sitting to Kennedy's left, in a camel jacket and dark slacks, the man she saw on Aug. 6 holding a gun?
"No," Jenkins said.
Orloff, his voice still quiet, showed Jenkins the original police photographs. Could she see what it was about the Newton picture that had made her select that one? "Well, there's - the eyebrows, growing -- the complexion -- nose... can't really say," Jenkins said. So how, specifically, had she chosen Newton's photograph?
"By the eyebrows," Jenkins said. "And you cannot judge a man by his eyebrows."
Orloff showed her one more picture and asked whether that might be Kathleen Smith's murderer. "Mr. Orloff."Jenkins said, taking a deep breath, "I don't know who shot Kathleen Smith. I saw a man on a corner with a gun... I did not see anybody shoot Kathleen Smith. When I saw the gun I turned and took off running, like I was supposed to do. Now, I don't know who shot her."