Jury Acquits Bingham in Prison Deaths : Rejects Charge He Smuggled Gun in ‘71 San Quentin Riot

Times Staff Writers

Stephen Bingham, who lived for 13 years as a fugitive before returning to the United States to face trial, was acquitted Friday of charges that he smuggled a gun to San Quentin prison inmate George Jackson in 1971, triggering a bloody riot that left Jackson and five others dead.

Bingham, 44, was acquitted of two murder charges in the deaths of two prison guards killed in the uprising and of conspiring with Jackson to smuggle in the weapon.

“This (verdict) speaks a word of encouragement for those involved in popular causes,” Bingham told reporters and supporters outside the Marin County courtroom where the verdicts were read. “But nothing detracts from the loss of six human beings on that day; that’s very real. . . . My innocence is also very real.”

Packed Courtroom

Marin County Superior Court Judge E. Warren McGuire read the verdicts to a courtroom packed with Bingham’s well-wishers, who have been present throughout the trial and waited outside the courtroom throughout the six days of jury deliberations.

Bingham sighed when the first innocent verdict was read. As the reading continued, he choked back tears. By the third verdict, several spectators, Bingham and his attorneys had tears streaming down their faces and a cheer erupted in the courtroom.


Then Bingham--a Harvard-educated lawyer and member of a prominent Connecticut family--shared a tearful hug with his father, stepmother and his French-born wife, Francoise, whom he met while living as a fugitive in Europe.

“I promised myself and my wife that we can start planning our life now,” Bingham said later.

Bingham’s father, Alfred, 81--a retired Connecticut judge and son of a U.S. senator--said the trial “demonstrated the essential decency of our judicial system. . . . In spite of all the difficulties of the last two years, this shows our essential freedoms are still intact.”

The elder Bingham spent most of his life savings on his son’s defense.

Defense co-counsels M. Gerald Schwartzbach and Susan Rutberg said the verdict showed the difference between public sentiment in 1986 and in 1971, a period of domestic turbulence over the Vietnam War and race relations.

Had his client been tried in 1971 “I wouldn’t be sure it (the verdict) would be the same,” Schwartzbach said. “Stephen wasn’t a fool for running away.”

“It was a very different time then,” Rutberg said, adding that Bingham did not surrender to authorities in 1971 because he “feared he would not live to see a trial.”

Prosecutor Terrence R. Boren congratulated the defense on its victory.

“I am disappointed,” he told reporters. “But by the same token, the jury’s verdict was within the realm of reason. I don’t quarrel with it.”

None of the members of the jury, including forewoman Mary Bradford, a 61-year-old retired schoolteacher, would comment on the verdicts. The jury deliberated for 23 hours over the six-day period.

Bingham’s trial closes the book on the bloodiest episode in California prison history.

Bingham was accused of hiding a gun in a tape recorder and smuggling it to Jackson, an author and prison revolutionary, during a private lawyer-client meeting at San Quentin on Aug. 21, 1971.

The bloody prison revolt ensued minutes later, and Bingham fled the country, saying later that he did so because he felt he could not get a fair trial.

He remained in hiding for 13 years, working in Paris as a house painter and traveling through Europe, Canada and the United States before returning voluntarily in 1984 to go on trial.

Flight Cited

During the 2 1/2-month trial, prosecutor Boren often cited Bingham’s flight as proof of his guilt. “The truth was emerging, and the defendant didn’t want to be anywhere near it,” Boren said in his closing argument. “He knew that the truth was not and would not be his ally.”

Bingham countered by saying that he fled when he became convinced that authorities were trying to frame him.

In his own testimony, he flatly denied any role in Jackson’s ill-fated escape attempt.

“On Aug. 21, 1971, or at any other time, did you give George Jackson a weapon?” defense lawyer Schwartzbach asked at one point.

“No, I did not,” Bingham answered.

“On Aug. 21, 1971, or at any other time, did you give George Jackson clips of ammunition?”

Again, Bingham said, “No, I did not.”

Legal Investigator

On the day of Jackson’s uprising, Bingham arrived at San Quentin with Vanita Anderson, a legal investigator for Jackson, who was about to be tried for murder in the death of a Soledad prison guard.

Bingham wanted to talk to Jackson about a class-action lawsuit--aimed at improving prison conditions--to be filed on behalf of all California inmates.

Anderson was denied a visit because she had already seen Jackson that week, and investigators at the time were limited to one visit a week. Bingham, however, was allowed in.

As the attorney prepared to visit the Black Panther Party official, Bingham was asked by prison guard Dan Scarborough if he wanted to use a tape recorder in his meeting. When Bingham said he did not have one, Scarborough testified that Anderson offered hers.

Key to Defense

The facts that Bingham did not bring the recorder with him and did not plan to bring it into his meeting with Jackson until encouraged by the guard were key parts of his defense.

Several men who worked as San Quentin guards in 1971 testified that Jackson was thoroughly strip-searched before his meeting with Bingham and did not have a gun.

Minutes after meeting with the lawyer, however, Jackson was stopped by a guard who noticed something in the prisoner’s hair. Jackson said, “You got me,” and then produced a 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol and two eight-round ammunition magazines from beneath a bushy Afro-style wig, guards testified. “The dragon has come,” he said, quoting Ho Chi Minh.

Tried to Escape

He then launched a disastrous escape attempt, forcing the guards to free about two dozen inmates, many of whom rampaged through the cellblock. The violence resulted in the deaths of three guards, two inmate-trusties and Jackson himself. Two of the guards were shot to death with the pistol eventually found beneath Jackson’s body; those killings resulted in the murder charges against Bingham.

The third guard and two inmate-trusties bled to death in San Quentin’s top-security Adjustment Center after their throats had been slashed by rebellious prisoners armed with razor blades embedded in toothbrush handles.

Several former San Quentin correctional officers testified with gruesome vividness about the violence.

‘Very Swift Cut’

“It was a very swift cut--almost painless,” said Kenneth McCray, recalling with emotion the moment at which a prisoner casually slit his throat. McCray, bleeding badly, survived by feigning death.

His act allowed him to witness the executions of his colleagues: “May the Lord have mercy on my soul,” whispered one guard as he was killed. “Good God, man, I have five children!” pleaded another before he was shot in the head.

Jackson died as he sprinted across a prison exercise yard known as Plaza Chapel, where he was cut down by guards’ rifle fire.

Defense lawyers Schwartzbach and Rutberg posited the theory that Jackson had been the victim of a plot by prison officials bent on killing him because he was a popular and articulate critic of the state’s correctional system. Jackson’s scathing book, “Soledad Brother,” was an international best-seller.

Pretext for Killing

The defense lawyers contended that prison officials encouraged an escape attempt to give guards a pretext to kill Jackson.

The defense team also put forth the idea that Jackson may have had a gun hidden somewhere before meeting with Bingham.

Prosecutor Boren contended that security measures surrounding Jackson were so tight that the only way the prisoner could have gotten a gun was in his meeting with Bingham. He built his case on circumstantial evidence, chiefly the testimony of former guards and forensic criminalists.

For the most part, the prosecution witnesses read or repeated testimony they gave at the 1975-76 trial of six other inmates accused of conspiring with Jackson and Bingham in the escape attempt.

Conspiracy, Murder

One of those men, Johnny L. Spain, was convicted of conspiracy and two counts of murder. Two others were found guilty of assault. The remaining defendants were found not guilty.

Missing from Bingham’s trial were several critical pieces of evidence, such as the tape recorder thought to have concealed the gun and a curly black hair found on the gun.

The tape recorder left the prison with Anderson on the day of the incident and was never recovered. The hair apparently popped out of a broken laboratory slide while the evidence sat in storage.

Also missing from the trial were several key witnesses, including Anderson. After the San Quentin uprising, she moved to Texas, where she earned a teaching credential; she now lives in Los Angeles under her married name and refused to testify about her activities on Aug. 21, 1971. She told authorities she would invoke the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination if called as a witness.

Defense lawyers said their notion of an official plot on Jackson’s life was bolstered by the fact that Anderson was never subpoenaed, questioned before a grand jury or indicted, even though authorities claimed she played a key role in smuggling the gun to Jackson.

The defense team implied that if she had been forced to talk, authorities feared she may have implicated some undercover police agents within the Black Panther Party who had encouraged Jackson’s ill-fated escape attempt.

Boren said Anderson was not pursued because there was no solid evidence linking her to the crime.