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

June 28, 1986|MARIANN HANSEN and MARK A. STEIN | Times Staff Writers

SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — 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.

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