SAN FRANCISCO — Former Peoples Temple member Larry Layton went on trial again Friday on federal charges of conspiring to kill a U.S. congressman and diplomat just hours before the mass suicide-murder in Jonestown that took the lives of cult leader Jim Jones and 912 followers.
Nearly eight years after the horrific event, jurors heard opening arguments describing Layton, 40, as either an "assassin" or as a man in a "confused and distraught state of mind" who believed defecting members fleeing the cult's jungle outpost were "CIA provocateurs intent on destroying Jonestown."
Assistant Public Defender Marianne D. Bachers said Layton had "no knowledge of any plan to harm" the diplomat or Rep. Leo J. Ryan (D-San Mateo), one of five people shot to death in an ambush at the Kaituma airstrip in Guyana on Nov. 18, 1978.
Layton was part of a plot by the "paranoid" Jones to "prevent the outside world from discovering what was going on" in the isolated commune, said U.S. Atty. Joseph P. Russoniello.
In addition to the murder conspiracy charge in the death of Ryan, Layton is also charged in the attempted murder of Richard C. Dwyer, then deputy chief of the U.S. mission to Guyana. Dwyer, now retired, was wounded at the airstrip, along with 10 others. Layton also faces a charge of aiding and abetting the murder of Ryan and the attempted murder of Dwyer.
A mistrial was declared in Layton's first trial in 1981 when the jury deadlocked 11 to 1 in favor of acquittal on the conspiracy charges and 7 to 5 in favor of conviction on the aiding and abetting charges.
The jury's deadlock touched off a five-year series of appeals by the government to allow evidence of statements by Jones that were excluded from the first trial.
Some Tapes Inadmissible
In 1983 the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that tapes of Jones exhorting his followers to kill Ryan were admissible. The maneuvering continued through Thursday, when Chief U.S. District Judge Robert F. Peckham, who is hearing the second trial, ruled some sections of that tape inadmissible.
Layton, who joined the Peoples Temple in 1968 and went to Guyana in May, 1978, is the only person tried in the United States on charges arising from the airstrip killings. He is being tried under a federal statute governing the murder of congressmen and internationally protected people. He is not charged with actually shooting either Ryan or Dwyer.
Ryan had traveled to Guyana with a party of aides and journalists to investigate allegations that cult members were being held at the jungle community against their will.
On his arrival at the Kaituma airstrip, a 45-minute drive outside Jonestown, Ryan was presented a petition from the commune opposing his visit. Layton was one of the signers, Russoniello said. Bachers countered in her statement that residents were prevented from eating dinner unless they signed the petition.
The next day, as a truck with temple defectors was preparing to leave for the airstrip, Russoniello said Layton was seen talking to Jones, "begging, pleading" and then saying to Ryan's party that he wanted to defect with the others.
Given Gun, Prosecutor Says
Russoniello said Layton was given a gun at the airstrip by another temple member, who arrived ahead of time with the ambush squad, and Layton insisted on entering the smaller of two planes waiting to take Ryan's party away.
The other passengers told the pilot to stop the taxiing aircraft after shooting broke out at the airstrip, but Layton said, "Take off, take off," and when the pilot refused, pulled a revolver and shot two of the defectors and tried to shoot a third, Russoniello said.