The first major interrogation of the largely forgotten story of a young Black man in 1980s San Diego who, during an undeserved and racially motivated arrest, killed a police officer
Southern California, the mid-1980s: an era of big hair and shoulder pads, crack cocaine and the birth of rap music. On March 31, 1985 two patrol men pulled over a young Black driver, Sagon Penn, without cause. Raised in the mostly Black Encanto section of San Diego, Penn was an idealist who believed in world peace and the oneness of humanity. Earlier that day, Penn had applied to be an officer for the San Diego Police Department and was scheduled to take the written test in the coming week. Events escalated and Penn seized a police officer’s gun, shot two cops (killing one), a woman “ride-along” in one of the police vehicles, and commandeered another police car to make his escape before turning himself in. With the help of a daring and charismatic defense lawyer named Milt Silverman, Penn, after two riveting trials, is found not guilty on all charges.
Utterly unique in its details, Sagon Penn’s story is also an all-too-familiar story of the relationship between Black communities and the police. Penn never disputed his actions. The question was what, if anything, could justify such an act? What could turn this peaceful young man into someone at the center of a murder trial? For two years, San Diego struggled to come to terms with what this trial said about its city, its inhabitants, and its law enforcement community. Penn’s trial became a media spectacle that presaged such notorious cases in the 90s as the trials for OJ Simpson, the Menendez brothers, and even Lorena Bobbitt and Scott Peterson.