Court records reviewed by The Times show that career Justice lawyers were seeking a default judgment and penalties against the three men as recently as May 5, before abruptly ending their pursuit 10 days later.
People directly familiar with the case, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of fear of retribution, said career lawyers in two separate Justice offices had recommended proceeding to default judgment before political superiors overruled them.
The civil suit filed Jan. 7 identified the three men as members of the Panthers and said they wore military-style uniforms, black berets, combat boots, battle-dress pants, black jackets with military-style insignias and were armed with "a dangerous weapon"and used racial slurs and insults to scare would-be voters and those there to assist them at the Philadelphia polling location on Nov. 4.
The complaint said the three men engaged in "coercion, threats and intimidation, ... racial threats and insults, ... menacing and intimidating gestures, ... and movements directed at individuals who were present to vote."
To support its evidence, the government had secured an affidavit from Bartle Bull, a longtime civil rights activist and former aide to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign. Mr. Bull said in a sworn statement dated April 7 that he was serving in November as a credentialed poll watcher in Philadelphia when he saw the three uniformed Panthers confront and intimidate voters with a nightstick.
"In my opinion, the men created an intimidating presence at the entrance to a poll," he declared. "In all my experience in politics, in civil rights litigation and in my efforts in the 1960s to secure the right to vote in Mississippi ... I have never encountered or heard of another instance in the United States where armed and uniformed men blocked the entrance to a polling location."