The Marin County Courthouse Incident—TheCourt Reporter’s Story

Over a decade ago, Todd Combs started Combs Reporting with his father Ken Combs. Ken, a pioneer in the court reporting industry, has many experiences to share from his career. One experience in particular involved the Marin County courthouse incident—in which a 17 year-old named Jonathan Jackson attempted to negotiate the freedom of his brother and other prisoners by kidnapping the Superior Court Judge Harold Haley. This horrific event occurred on August 7, 1970 and unfortunately ended in a shootout that left four men dead.

Despite happening over four decades ago, Ken is still able to remember this terrible incident in great detail. He wrote a very moving account of the event for the Marin Independent Journal. The following is a summary of Ken’s personal account.

On that August day in 1970, Ken Combs had been serving as the courtroom reporter and had been taking notes for a trial transcript. During the trial, Judge Haley allowed the defendant James D. McClain, a San Quentin prisoner, to represent himself. He had been charged with possession of a knife and stabbing a prison guard.

As part of McClain’s defense, the defendant had brought in several witnesses to testify on his behalf. These witnesses were also prisoners from San Quentin. As the witnesses testified, Ken did not realize what was about to happen that day in the courtroom. He thought—just like the others in the courtroom—that this was just going to be another case dealing with a knife possession by a prisoner.

However, at least one person in the courtroom did know that things were not going to be normal that day. A 17 year-old named Jonathan Jackson interrupted the trail and shouted: “All right gentlemen. Just hold it right there.” Ken recalls typing Jackson’s words and identifying him as “A VOICE FROM THE AUDIENCE” in the transcript. When Ken finally looked up to see who was yelling, he saw Jackson pointing a handgun toward the front of the room.

Ken remembers thinking of three courses of action he could take in response to this terrifying situation: sit still and do what Jackson says, try to run for the back entrance and escape, or keep typing. Ken tried to continue typing about what was occurring, but his fingers were out of control and weren’t hitting the right keys. Unable to make comprehensible notes, Ken decided to sit quietly.

Jackson quickly shouted for everyone to get on the floor. Without hesitation, Ken and the others in the courtroom went to the floor face down. Jackson then passed out guns to the prisoners. Chaos erupted. Ken remembers hearing a lot of shouting as the prisoners rounded up the Judge, the Assistant District Attorney, and the jurors. Ken was then moved to a group of jurors, and the prisoners bound his wrists with wire. Meanwhile, the prisoners taped a sawed-off shotgun to Judge Haley and had the barrel pointed up under his chin.

After long moments of chaos and yelling, the prisoners and Jackson made their escape out the front door of the courtroom. They had a getaway van ready just outside the court house. They forced Judge Haley, the Assistant District Attorney, and three jurors to come with as their hostages.

As soon as the group left, Ken broke free of the wires that bound his wrists. He quickly led the rest of the people in the courtroom to safety in the judge’s chambers. Within about five minutes, they heard dozens of gun shots. When the firing stopped, Ken ran outside and saw the van that was being used to make the escape. Police officers were approaching the van from all sides. All but one of the prisoners involved with the escape had been killed during the shootout. Judge Haley had been killed by the prisoners with the shotgun that had been taped to him. The Assistant District Attorney Gary Thomas had been shot in the lower back, which confined him to a wheelchair ever since. And two of the three jurors that had been taken hostage had been wounded by gunfire.

Ken’s story reminds us of the potential risks of being a part of the legal and justice system. When working in close proximity to criminals and prisoners, you never know when a dangerous situation can occur. Ever since this incident, courtroom security has tightened. Local courts were immediately wired with direct communication to the sheriff’s department. Metal detectors were also installed in all courtrooms.

Many years have passed since this incident. Ken is now officially retired, but his son Todd continues the family legacy in the court reporting industry with Combs Reporting.