The only man convicted of murder in a bloody 1971 riot at San Quentin Prison is battling to win his release on parole--with the surprising support of a number of prison guards.
The acquittal Friday of one-time fugitive lawyer Stephen Bingham of murder and conspiracy in the uprising leaves inmate Johnny L. Spain as the only person convicted of murder in the Aug. 21, 1971, incident, which left six people dead, including three guards.
Spain was convicted of murder in the deaths of two of the guards, which is why the support of correctional officers in his current bid for parole seems so surprising.
“It was a terrible day, and it didn’t end that day,” Spain said in an interview at the California Medical Facility at Vacaville, the state prison where he is held. “It destroyed and altered a lot of lives.”
In the interview, Spain refused to discuss his version of what happened during the riot, but he said he became disillusioned with the revolutionary politics of the period and quit the Black Panther Party in 1980. In prison he has earned a high school diploma and learned an electrician’s skills.
But while Spain has impressed some Vacaville guards, other prison officials remain adamantly opposed to his parole.
“He is one of the most treacherous, dangerous men around,” said Richard Nelson, associate warden at San Quentin.
The conflict over Spain’s upcoming parole hearing is yet one more twist in one of California’s most bizarre criminal cases, a 15-year odyssey that is expected to last for several more years as Spain’s appeal lingers in the courts.
Unproved Conspiracy Theories
The case has long been rife with unproved conspiracy theories about a government plot to set up the death of George Jackson, the inmate-author adulated by leftists seeking prison reform. Jackson was killed while sprinting across the prison yard during the uprising.
The government simply asserts, meantime, that Jackson’s death stemmed from an escape gone awry when a guard noticed a gun and ammunition clips hidden under a wig on Jackson’s head.
Bingham, 44, was acquitted of slipping the pistol to Jackson.
Spain was convicted in a trial a decade ago of conspiracy and murder in the deaths of Officers Frank DeLeon and Jere Graham, who were shot. He was not accused of pulling the trigger, but rather of being involved in the escape and thus criminally liable for the deaths. At the time of the riot, Spain was serving a life term for murdering a man in 1966 in Los Angeles.
None of the other defendants was convicted of anything more serious than assault. According to lawyers familiar with the case, one was murdered after his release from prison. Another is a farmer in the South, a third graduated from college and went to work for a county public defender in Northern California, a fourth remains in prison at Folsom, and information could not be obtained on the fifth.
Spain had never heard of Bingham before the riot. The two still have not met, although Bingham’s father, a retired judge, visited Spain in prison once or twice during the 13 years that Stephen Bingham was a fugitive, seeking information about his son.
“I just didn’t have any,” Spain said.
Spain, 38, his hair short, his mustache trimmed, was sitting in a barred visiting room, flanked by Dennis Riordan, the lawyer who has represented him since before his conviction in 1976.
Spain was awaiting a federal judge’s decision on whether to order a retrial in the case, a decision that most likely will come this summer. And after 20 years in prison, Spain was preparing for his first bid for a parole date before the Board of Prison Terms on July 30. Those preparations include laudatory letters from at least 10 Vacaville guards.
“I could not imagine myself writing on the behalf of another inmate,” wrote one, “simply because I do not know another inmate who demonstrates so clearly or consistently the qualities he has.”
Wayne Forbes, a former guard, recalled being told during his training that he should never “let Spain walk in back of me, to always be alert around him because he was an officer killer.”
But as it turned out, Forbes wrote, he grew to trust and respect Spain. He wrote a three-page letter praising Spain’s work in prison and predicting that Spain would succeed on the outside.
Offers of Jobs
Among the other letters sent to the board on his behalf are offers of three jobs as an electrician.
“With his skills and personal disposition he will have absolutely no problem gaining or maintaining employment,” predicted William Houdelette, an electrician at Vacaville who supervises Spain’s work. “He is one of my finest workers.”
“The people who are betting on him are very sophisticated about this stuff,” said Riordan, Spain’s lawyer. “Prison guards do not have romantic notions about prisoners.”
But Spain will not get a parole date without opposition.
“Despite what he has done so far, he was convicted of two murders,” said Marin County Assistant Dist. Atty. Terrence R. Boren, who prosecuted Bingham and said the Marin County district attorney opposes Spain’s release.
And no doubt, some guards who were on duty that day will want to be heard.
“He was an extremely dangerous criminal, and he was a management problem,” said San Quentin Associate Warden Nelson, who was among the first officers to enter the bloody cellblock after Jackson had been killed in 1971. ". . . Beyond doubt, he should remain in prison for the rest of his life.”
Nelson believes that Spain has conned the people who have written in support of him.
‘Know How to Play the Game’
“He knows how to play the game. He knows how to do time. He has not been and never will be a productive citizen,” Nelson said.
At the time of his trial, Spain was viewed as such an extreme threat that he was shackled while in court.
That shackling forms the basis for Spain’s appeal, now before U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson. Spain claims that he was in such pain from the chains that he could not testify on his own behalf. He wants a new trial so he may testify.
“He had a fair trial the first time,” said Deputy Atty. Gen. Ronald Niver, who has opposed Spain’s efforts to win a new trial since 1976.
Niver believes that Spain was convicted and given a life sentence because of testimony that Jackson handed Spain the gun for a short time during the 30-minute uprising, and Spain held it on some officers. That made him liable for the shooting deaths of Graham and DeLeon. A third guard and two inmate-trusties were killed when someone slit their throats. No one was convicted of those murders.
Ammunition Found in Cell
A search of Spain’s cell after the riot turned up an escape map and several rounds of ammunition hidden in hollowed bars of soap. Additionally, Spain was the only inmate who ran from the cellblock with Jackson. Once in the prison yard, Spain dived into some bushes and was captured. Jackson was felled by guards’ gunfire.
Spain first got into serious trouble in December, 1966, when at age 17, he shot and killed a man during an East Los Angeles street robbery.
“I really didn’t need to rob anyone for money. He happened to be there. His life was ended, and his family was destroyed,” Spain said.
Spain was sentenced to Soledad State Prison. He was there when Jackson and two others were charged with murdering a Soledad guard in 1970.
“I was considered one of the main leaders then, and I was,” he said.
In November, 1970, Spain was sent to San Quentin’s Adjustment Center, a section of cells that was divided between death row inmates and the hardest of the hard-core problem inmates. Jackson was already there, awaiting trial for the guard’s murder.
Spain would not discuss the uprising, saying he is saving his version for the witness stand if he wins a new trial.
But he did recall discussions among inmates in his cellblock. One topic was revolution, which Jackson believed would soon occur in the United States, particularly if he could escape from prison.
“We talked about the whole range of what the Left felt was important--all the things we could change, give us a week or two,” Spain said in a sarcastic tone. “But at the time, it was deadly serious.”
He noted that prisoners easily “lose perspective about the real world.”
“George Jackson was certainly one of the most intelligent people I have known. But he didn’t have people to say to him, ‘You have to look beyond the prison cell,’ ” Spain said.
After the riot, Spain spent years in a leadership role in the Black Panther Party, replacing Jackson as “field marshal.” But he said he no longer has an interest in prison politics.
Now he is simply a “mainline” prisoner in the general population at Vacaville. George Galaza, Vacaville’s acting public information officer, said, “He is just another inmate.”
Spain talks of the need to figure out a way to rehabilitate inmates. But he said most inmates “let prison become their lives” and do not try to improve their lives by getting an education and learning a skill.
“I don’t want to be like the people I see in here,” Spain said. ". . . This is where the scum of the Earth is.”