The Trial of Lauren Watson

In March 1969, as the civil rights movement in the U.S. was in full swing, a chapter was playing out in a Denver courtroom that would later make its way to television screens across the country. 

Lauren Watson, the then leader of the Denver Black Panthers chapter, was charged with resisting arrest and resisting a police officer for a series of events on the morning on Nov. 6, 1968. The maximum sentence for each misdemeanor count would have been 90 days in jail and a $300 fine. Watson was acquitted after a jury trial. 

The entire four-day trial was filmed, turned into a documentary by the NET Division of Educational Broadcasting Corporation and broadcast across the country as a four-part series in March 1970. The resulting documentary, “Trial: The City and County of Denver vs. Lauren R. Watson,” gave viewers an in-depth look into the mundane details of the American justice system at a time when camera access to court was extremely limited and captured how conflicts around the civil rights movement spilled into courts and everyday life. 

The Morning of Nov. 6, 1968 

On the day after the 1968 national election of former Pres. Richard Nixon, Watson who was in his late 20s, was the leader of the Denver Black Panthers chapter and lived with his wife at their house near 28th and Welton in northeast Denver. 

The events of that day are different depending on who you asked, Watson or the Denver Police officer who arrested him. 

Officer Robert Cantwell, a then 24-year-old officer, testified in court that he pulled Watson over for taking a turn too fast and not stopping at an intersection. Cantwell testified that Watson initially pulled over but drove off as the officer went to grab his citation book. Eventually, Cantwell said Watson pulled into the parking lot near a filling station at 34th Avenue and Franklin Street and headed into the station to use the phone while other passengers blocked Cantwell and other officers who’d arrived at the scene from entering. Eventually, the officers entered and arrested Watson. 

Watson’s version of events was different. He said that on the morning of Nov. 6, Cantwell had parked in front of his home and when Watson and his wife were on the porch, the officer yelled about Nixon’s victory and ended with “White power!” Watson claimed Cantwell had been harassing him that morning leading up to the arrest at the filling station. 

By either version, the events of the morning of Nov. 6, 1968, spoke to a larger fight playing out across the country as Black Americans fought for equal protection under the law and activists clashed with law enforcement.  

From Courtroom J to the Nation 

Watson’s case was assigned to Judge Zita Weinshienk, who just five years earlier in 1964 became the first woman appointed to the bench in Colorado. Weinshienk approved the cameras on the understanding that the footage would be used for an educational documentary on the U.S. justice system. 

While cameras in court proceedings are a norm now, with Colorado and other states taking steps to allow permanent trial live streaming, it was far from ordinary in 1969. The only other state to allow cameras in court at the time was Texas after Colorado saw its first televised trial in the 1950’s. 

The documentary set in Denver County Court Courtroom J walked viewers through the nitty-gritty and sometimes mundane details of a criminal trial. The series is a chronological walkthrough of a criminal trial with commentary from a Harvard Law professor and individual interviews spliced in. 

The case was prosecuted by Denver city attorney Wright Morgan who was joined at table for much of the trial by Cantwell, the primary witness for the prosecution. Watson was represented by a young defense lawyer Leonard Davies who would go on to represent a number of civil rights activists in Colorado and the southwest. 

Across four episodes, viewers saw Morgan and Davies select jurors, squabble over how questions were phrased and approach the bench to make hushed arguments to Weinshienk. The six-member jury was composed of four men and two women, all white. The final panel prompted Davies to object to the jury pool who were generally older, white collar and from more affluent neighborhoods. On the stand, Davies cross-examined Cantwell and another officer who responded which brought out conflicting accounts of what actually happened and if Watson did indeed resist arrest. 

After two hours of deliberation, the jury returned a not-guilty verdict. Jurors told the attorneys and cameras after the verdict that they didn’t feel the evidence showed Watson resisted physically enough for a conviction. 

Legacy of the Trial 

As well as offering one of the first glimpses for many Americans under the hood of the criminal justice system, Watson’s trial was a microcosm in the late ’60s tensions between police, Black civil rights groups and communities and the justice system. 

In a 2022 interview with Law Week, former Judge Gary Jackson recalled that at his first job for the Denver District Attorney’s Office after graduating law school in 1970, he was often the only Black person in the courtroom. At the time, Jackson was the only Black prosecutor in the state and when he and other Black lawyers formed the Sam Cary Bar Association in 1971, Jackson estimated there were around 15 Black attorneys in Colorado. 

Despite the not-guilty verdict, in interviews throughout the documentary and following the verdict, Watson raised concerns over how the criminal justice system could serve people equally regardless of race or socioeconomic status. Aside from his supporters who came to watch the trial, Watson was the only Black person in court involved in the trial and he asked if the court and jury could truly be made up of his peers. 

Trial: The City and County of Denver vs. Lauren R. Watson” can be viewed at the American Archive of Public Broadcasting where it is archived. 

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