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Convicted Killer in '71 Prison Riot Backed for Parole

June 29, 1986|DAN MORAIN | Times Staff Writer

VACAVILLE, Calif. — 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.

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