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The Panther’s Tale : Johnny Spain Is Recounting the Story of His Life--From Unwanted Child to Convicted Killer to Political Activist

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you didn’t know better, you’d think Johnny Spain was running for political office.

He starts the morning in suit and tie at a local television station, broad-jumping the milestones of his life to fit the 10-minute interview slot: black child born to a white woman in 1940s Mississippi . . . convicted killer doing time in prison . . . politicized Black Panther . . . life on the outside. . . .

He spends the rest of the day with a reporter, cruising through the anecdotes of his life, tracing the arc from his first taste of notoriety--he was behind bars from the ages of 17 to 38--to run-of-the-mill ex-con to fledgling celebrity at 47. He ends the day energetically sprinting through his thoughts about the criminal justice system--he’s obsessed with analyzing it--for a rapt audience at the hip Modern Times bookstore in San Francisco.

As the store closes its doors for the night, a staffer gently suggests that he wrap up.

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Spain loves to talk. It’s as if he’s trying to tell the story of 21 years in prison and make up for it at the same time.

It’s been eight years since he emerged from prison into the waiting arms of elated lawyers and prison rights activists who had fought for his release. The years since the fanfare ended have been a bit of a roller coaster--one marriage and divorce, half a dozen jobs, 18 therapists. He walks in, takes a disliking to the therapist, and walks out.

Now, Spain is doing what he seems to do best--telling his unusual, tumultuous and ultimately victorious story from the vantage point of an expert on prison life. And there is interest again in Spain, long after most of the famous Black Panthers of the 1960s and 1970s have faded away or died.

As one of the infamous “San Quentin Six” he was tried and convicted for conspiracy to commit murder in the bloody 1971 prison escape attempt that left his friend George Jackson, the prison revolutionary and author of “Soledad Brother,” and several guards dead. Spain endured the trial in 25 pounds of shackles. Later, a federal judge overturned the conviction on the grounds that the shackling had violated his constitutional rights to a fair trial.

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Although he and his primary lawyer, Dennis Riordan, wrote a version of his life story, the book that finally got published is a biography written by Chicago-Kent College of Law professor and author Lori Andrews, who made surprisingly readable material of Spain’s complicated legal and emotional odyssey through five California prisons. If the book sells, Spain stands to get a modest amount of money, he says.

“Black Power, White Blood: The Life and Times of Johnny Spain” begins with his star-crossed birth from the illicit union of a married white woman and a black man in 1949 and follows him through his years in prison. Movie rights to his life story were bought by Columbia Pictures and a screenplay has been written, but the movie is still in the project stage.

Spain lived with his mother and her resentful husband and his half siblings until the age of 6, when his mother literally gave him away to a black couple in South-Central Los Angeles. He was raised as Larry Armstrong, but after he moved to South-Central he took the name of his new father--Johnny Spain.

A straightforward conviction for robbery and murder landed Spain in prison at the age of 17. He killed a robbery victim who resisted and got a life sentence. But his subsequent political awakening and friendship with the radical and charismatic Jackson turned Spain into something of a jailhouse sage and cause celebre on the outside.

After his conviction for the San Quentin escape was overturned, he remained in prison for the original murder until paroled after serving 21 years. Within days, he was dining at a party at the home of Angela Davis, the UCLA professor who was fired in 1969 for her political views and activity on behalf of black prison inmates known as the Soledad Brothers.

“There are a lot of people who went to prison, there are a lot of people who had a famous trial, and there are a lot of people who get out of prison and make it--they don’t go back--but not that many people have the elements of all those things,” he says by way of explaining why he thought his life would make a good book.

He knows that some will simply be uninterested, even angry, that a convicted murderer is the subject of a sympathetic book about his sad childhood and harsh prison years. “Some people feel, ‘Hey, you committed a crime and I don’t care about all this other stuff, you should be punished.’ Well, I think I was punished.”

It’s difficult to reconcile the glib quipster who likes to lie in bed at night with his girlfriend, concocting goofy rhymes to lull them to sleep, with a high school dropout punk of a murderer who did 21 years of hard time, some of that in solitary confinement.

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“I love that,” he says, chuckling softly, relishing people’s marvel.

He pauses over his breakfast at a table overlooking a gray San Francisco morning.

He was, in fact, a bright student before turning into a disaffected teenager who took his inspiration from gang members on the streets. His prison reading list ranged from Frantz Fanon to “The Velveteen Rabbit” with the series of “Dune” books his favorite. “I went into prison like this,” he says quietly. “And I was raised like this.”

“What I did in prison--I should have won the Academy Award every single year.” What he did, he says, was pull off an act as an all-knowing tough guy--someone who could tell when anyone had a weapon, someone completely in command of his fate, an inmate not to be trifled with.

“If you don’t pull that off in there, you don’t survive,” he says.

As he tools around downtown San Francisco at the wheel of a reporter’s car--he doesn’t own one--he revels in another kind of knowledge, his intimacy with the city. He slows the car as he passes a couple of uniformed police officers.

“Hey, you want to get some work done here, man?” he yells out playfully. The officers are acquaintances from his days as a community organizer.

He tells one of his favorite post-prison stories. Three days after his release, he was driving a borrowed car and got stuck in traffic on a bridge. “I saw three people bang their steering wheels in frustration,” he says. “I laughed. I thought: ‘This is cool. If the worst problem I was going to have was traffic, I was doing pretty good.’ ”

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Other things make him angry--and sometimes his reaction is rather outsize. When a supposed admirer shook his hand so hard it hurt, he lashed out at the man.

“I said, ‘Do you have to break my hand?’ ” Spain recalls in astonishment. “He said, ‘That’s just being a man.’ ” Spain pressed a nerve near the man’s thumb making him crumple to the ground. “I said, ‘Is that being a man because I can do that?’ I said ‘What is being a man to you? Is it hurting someone?’ ”

Spain doesn’t think the man got it. “He got the point that I could hurt him,” Spain says glumly. “That’s all he understood.”

Traffic snarls and vise grip handshakes have been the least of his problems. Since he’s been out, he has wandered through several jobs. He’s been a community organizer, an electrician--a skill he learned from his adoptive father and further honed in Vacaville--a lecturer on diversity and human relations in schools and even the sheriff’s department.

Somehow, things never quite stay meshed. A job as an intake worker at a nonprofit work and housing program ended soon after he spent all evening helping one woman in trouble instead of dealing briefly and efficiently with a flow of troubled people seeking help.

“I’m not a 9 to 5 guy,” he says with a frustrated shrug.

“Does it bother me I’ve moved from job to job? No,” he says. “What I have is a career at who I am. That’s all any of us have a career at.”

He has also moved from place to place and rarely lives alone. He briefly had a tiny basement apartment all to himself. He crammed it with unpacked boxes and papers. “People would come and say, ‘Johnny, uh, are you a little cramped in here? It’s just like your cell.’ ”

Now, he shares a small Oakland apartment with his 35-year-old girlfriend of two years, Michelle Sixta. On one wall is a picture of the couple on vacation on a beach, both of them tall and sleek and smiling. Their home is a messy mix of clothes, books and computer equipment. He apologizes for the dirty dog smell in the air, explaining that one of their two cairn terriers has been sick. He met Sixta at a talk he gave two years ago.

Later, when he picks up Sixta from her downtown office job, she smiles mischievously at him.

“Did you tell her about my sordid past?” she asks him.

“I was saving that for last,” he says, falling effortlessly into the rhymes he likes to create.

Sixta, it turns out, was formerly married to conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh. Her current boyfriend would seem a startling contrast.

“They’re alike in a lot of ways,” Sixta says. “They’re very outspoken. They both have their brilliance.”

There has been a steady stream of women in his life since his release. Even while in prison, he married--and divorced--fathering two sons. Since he has been out, he’s had several relationships, including one with a woman who worked on his legal case. He speaks of them all with boilerplate ex-boyfriend reverence. “I learned a lot from her,” he says of one. “The most incredible thing is she told me some things about me that I had spent years effectively hiding from tons of psychiatrists.”

At one point, he thought he had met his soul mate--a photographer who, like him, had a white mother and a black father. He married her, had a daughter, and got divorced in 1993.

“I was not ready to get married,” he says.

“As it relates to my commitment to this person, yes, I definitely violated her trust,” he says of his then-wife. “But that’s an action in my life. That’s not who I am.”

Eight years out, Spain looks back on prison as less complicated than life out in the real world.

“It’s brutal, it’s disgusting, it’s everything horrible,” he says of prison. “But the premise is really simple. The best ones can walk out. The rest either die or you leave what could have developed in your mind there dead and walk out.”


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