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Bingham Trial in 1971 Prison Revolt Opens

Times Staff Writer

Prosecutors opened their case Monday against Stephen M. Bingham by using detailed graphics to show where he allegedly smuggled into a prison a gun that helped spark a brief but bloody San Quentin Prison revolt in 1971 that left six men dead, including radical convict-author George Jackson.

Bingham, 43, once a lawyer active in the prison-reform movement, is charged with the murders of two of the guards, Frank DeLeon and Jere Graham, and with conspiracy for his role in the alleged escape attempt. Bingham is accused of smuggling a pistol to Jackson during a visit, then leaving minutes before the uprising. He was representing Jackson at the time of the revolt.

Besides Jackson, three guards and two prisoners died during that abortive midsummer uprising. Bingham disappeared after the incident and hid for 13 years before surrendering here in July, 1984. He said he fled because he thought he could not receive a fair trial.

Terrence Boren, the Marin County assistant district attorney prosecuting the case, meticulously recounted the events of that Aug. 21--Bingham’s prison visit, his meeting with Jackson and the brutal slayings a few minutes later.

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“The evidence will show,” he said, “that Jackson was . . . without the gun and without the clips (of ammunition) when he left” his cell to meet with Bingham.

Boren said he believes he can prove that Jackson was constantly under surveillance on his way to and from his meeting with Bingham and that, after the visit, Jackson had the 9-millimeter automatic pistol hidden under a wig, also supplied by Bingham.

“When he (Jackson) returned to his cellblock, evidence will indicate, he had the wig, the gun, the clip and 16 bullets,” Boren told the jury.

He said he will introduce “several hundred” pieces of evidence and will call 50 to 75 witnesses, including some former guards who survived the uprising despite having their throats slashed by inmates.

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Marin County Superior Court Judge E. Warren McGuire told jurors that the trial may last until August.

Bingham, who is from a well-to-do and politically powerful Connecticut family, sat attentively but without apparent emotion during the prosecution’s all-day opening argument. His father, Alfred, and stepmother, Katherine, sat in the front row of the spectators gallery, taking notes.

The long delay in bringing the case to trial has put an interesting spin on the proceedings for the many Bingham supporters who sat, stood and squatted inside McGuire’s small courtroom. For them it is also a trial of sorts in which the liberal and iconoclastic social movements of the 1960s and early 1970s will be judged by the conservative and more traditional standards of the 1980s.

Publicity ‘Wonderful’

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Bingham said he was pleased that his case has drawn so much public notice.

“It’s wonderful,” he said during a brief recess. “It shows people haven’t forgotten; it shows people do care; it shows people still believe in positive social change.”

His attorney, M. Gerald Schwartzbach of San Francisco, conceded that Bingham’s disappearance after the revolt may not be easy for a jury to understand.

“They (prison officials and local prosecutors) never explored any other alternative” to the theory that Bingham smuggled in a gun, Schwartzbach said. “They had Stephen Bingham convicted before the evidence was in.”

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Different Scenario

However, a very different and much simpler scenario was presented by Boren after taking jurors on “an imaginary walk along the (lookout guards’) gun rail” in his opening argument.

“He hid for those 13 years out of guilt,” Boren asserted.

The defense is to present its opening argument today. After a day off, the jury is scheduled to go to nearby San Quentin to see the site of the 1971 revolt.

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