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The San Quentin six case: perspective and analysis.


On August 12, 1976, almost five years exactly from the day George Jackson was killed (August 21, 1971), a mixed verdict was delivered by the jury after the 16-month-long trial of the San Quentin Six (SQ6). The six black and Latino prisoners--Johnny Larry Spain, Fleeta Drumgo, Willie Tate, David Johnson, Hugo Pinell, and Luis Talamantez--had been accused of having joined revolutionary black convict George Jackson in an escape attempt on that "bloody Saturday" in 1971. Three guards and two inmates (trustees) were killed and three other guards wounded on that day. The six defendants were charged with the five deaths and three assaults. Of the 46 felony charges filed against the SQ6, there were six guilty verdicts. Talamantez, Drumgo, and Tate were exonerated of all charges; Spain was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and of conspiracy to commit murder; Pinell was convicted of two counts of felony assault by a prisoner serving a life term; and Johnson was found guilty of a single charge of assault.

The verdict was only a partial victory because the defendants, their attorneys, and supporters had not only hoped for unanimous acquittals but had also built their legal and political strategy around the contention that there was no escape conspiracy; that in fact the murder of George Jackson was planned and organized by the state; and that conditions in the maximum-security Adjustment Center (AC) at San Quentin were so barbarous that any of the convicts in the AC could have spontaneously committed the slayings and assaults on August 21. The ultimate political goal of the defense team was to focus attention on San Quentin's degrading treatment of prisoners, as well as to bring about an investigation of the events that actually led to George Jackson's death.

In order to understand the significance of, and reasoning behind, the jury's verdict, it is important to investigate the legal and political dynamics of this particular case. But this, in itself, is insufficient because the SQ6 case, while it has many unique features, did not develop in a historical vacuum. Its roots are to be found in the long history of prisoner resistance, the rise of the prison support movement, and the efforts of the state to smash and co-opt this struggle. To summarize the lessons to be drawn from the SQ6 case, then, it is necessary to place it in a much broader political and historical context.

In the late 1960s, as the civil rights, student, and anti-Vietnam War movements led to an upsurge of radical activity throughout the country, the impact of this growing consciousness was being felt inside the prisons of the United States. In part, this was a result of the influx into the prisons of people already politicized to a certain extent. Initially, Muslim organizing inside the penal institutions had the greatest effect on blacks; and even those who didn't subscribe to the religious tenets of the Nation of Islam were impressed by its ability to develop collective discipline. Many other black prisoners were deeply affected by the civil rights struggle and new forms of cultural nationalism. Consequently, civil rights organizers and Black Panthers entering the prison system found a ready constituency. From 1968 to 1971, imprisoned Panthers began to have some impact on the California prison population. Their activities outside the prison had even more effect. Even those black prisoners who didn't understand or agree with the Panthers' ideology admired their attitude and practice of armed self-defense in the streets of the black communities. To a lesser extent, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, and other minorities--who together form the majority in many prisons and jails--were also made more politically aware by the struggles that were going on outside.

Although the white prison population was probably least affected by this intensified class struggle, they were not immune either. The most politicized among them--Vietnam War resisters--were generally confined in federal prisons or military brigs, rather than in state institutions. But for at least short periods, a certain number of young whites (for causes ranging from drug busts to civil rights to student protest to Vietnam) did enter the prison system, and provided at least some white allies for the already conscious blacks and Latinos.

The impact of social upheaval on the white population wasn't all progressive, of course. The 1960s also saw a growing reactionary militancy on the part of whites frightened by the gains being made by blacks and other nonwhites, which they saw occurring at their expense. Neo-Nazi organizations took shape and helped perpetuate the racial division of the outside society within the prisons. This racial antagonism was what prison administrators and guards counted on as a crucial element of control. Those who ran the prisoners were frightened of the "new type" of prisoner, primarily the blacks, who would not bend down and lick the boots of their captors in seeking an early parole date or in-prison favors. Race-baiting, therefore, became the modus operandi throughout the prison system, pitting black against brown against white in a never-ending circle.

Race-baiting wasn't, of course, the only means of control employed by administrators and guards. The penal institutions have an array of rewards (bribes) and punishments (threats) that have generally served the purpose. The "rewards" range from the amenities of daily living--showers, canteen, mail, TV and movie "privileges," out-of-cell work and study activities--to parole. Punishments include loss of these "privileges," placement in strip cells (the "hole") or other forms of isolation, denial of parole, unofficial punishments such as beatings, gassings, destruction of personal property during cell searches, humiliation, threats, insults (generally by white guards against nonwhite inmates, although white prisoners are by no means exempt), and killings, both direct and indirect. Indirect killings are those that result from guards setting up prisoners against each other, and often involve providing weapons to (or at least ignoring their possession by) the favored inmates. In many cases, guards specifically solicit inmates to get rid of a recalcitrant prisoner. Deaths from failure to provide adequate medical care can also be termed "indirect killings," as can some suicides brought on by the conditions of despair and hopelessness. Direct killings are those caused by guards through the beating of inmates, the gassing of cells, the refusal of needed medical care in an emergency, and through faked "suicides" and the shooting of prisoners on some pretext (i.e., fighting or "attempting to escape").

The killing of prisoners is nothing new in the US prison system--it is probably as old as the prison system itself. What changed in the late 1960s and early 1970s were the targets and motivation. Previously, a guard might arrange to do away with a prisoner for any number of personal and racial biases. Increasingly in the 1960s, the men chosen for assassination were political targets, those involved in organizing within the prisons. Muslims and militant blacks bore the brunt of this. It should be noted, however, that for the most part, those who were political prisoners in the more traditional sense, i.e., those sent to prison because of outside political activities, were less susceptible to set-ups and assassinations because there was more outside attention paid to them, and any "mishap" was likely to incur a storm of protest from members of their community or movement.

The selective assassination of prison leaders was bound to have some effect on prisoners. But the initial response was the opposite of the desired suppression of organizational activities. Militant prisoners--strongly influenced by resistance struggles in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, as well as the growing movement in the United States--added a new element to the unwritten Convict Code: general retaliation against guards for deaths and injuries to inmates.

The Convict Code

Initially, the Convict Code was a way for prisoners to protect themselves against snitches, although it was much broader than that. It meant that you did not report misbehavior of other inmates to guards or other authorities--even if they were directed against you. An offense of one prisoner against another was to be handled by that prisoner and his friends (or members of his gang, ethnic group, or, eventually, political organization). If an inmate were brought to trial for an in-prison offense, the Convict Code meant that you did not testify against him. You saw nothing, heard nothing, knew nothing.

In Soledad and other California prisons in the late 1960s, however, the Convict Code came to be a measure of self-defense against attacks by guards. According to this extension of the Code, the prisoners were to regard themselves as one "class," the guards and administrators as another. If a member of your "class" were injured or killed, you had the right and responsibility to strike out against any member of the opposing "class." Practically, it meant that if a guard shot down or gassed a prisoner to death, then every other prisoner should take on the responsibility of avenging the prisoner's death. If the guilty party were out of reach, any other guard would do.

George Jackson explained the reasoning behind this extension of the Convict Code by asserting that prisoners are defenseless to prevent guards from killing any member of the prison population. "They have all the weapons." But prisoners can make the guards begin to regard this activity as dangerous to themselves. "We've got to make them stop and think that if they kill one of us, their own lives might be in danger." This kind of retributory justice is viewed as necessary because of the impunity with which guards have been able to kill prisoners in the past. Prison deaths were inevitably termed "accidental" or "justifiable homicide" when carried out at the hands of a guard. This was rarely disputed, and few families who sued the prison won.

This situation changed radically on January 13, 1970. On that day, six black and six white prisoners were let out in a new Soledad prison exercise yard--after months of strict segregation and intense race-baiting by the guards. The inevitable fight that broke out was halted by the bullets of a sharpshooter guard on the gunrail--killing three blacks and incidentally wounding one white with a ricochet. Two of the blacks were shot through the chest. One was left to bleed to death on the yard while guards prevented other prisoners from taking him to the hospital by holding them off at gunpoint.

One of the three blacks was W. L. Nolan, one of the best loved and most respected black prisoners in Soledad. Three days later, when the expected declaration of "justifiable homicide" was issued by the District Attorney, prisoners took matters into their own hands. A half hour after the DA's announcement, a guard was hurled to his death off an upper tier in the prison. The three prisoners who were accused of the killing--George Jackson, Fleeta Drumgo, and John Clutchette--eventually became known as the Soledad Brothers.

The incident could have begun and ended with the speedy trial and conviction of the three prisoners. But George Jackson was not the "usual" black prisoner, and the times had been changing in many respects. There was a movement outside the prisons, centered on the college campuses and in black communities, that began to take an interest in the situation of the men and women inside prison. Civil rights, the student and anti-war movements, and the activities of the Black Panther Party had all resulted in court battles and, at times, prison and jail terms, thus bridging some of the gaps that had formerly separated the people on both sides of the walls.

Political lawyers and movement activists with experience in these political trials were ready to move into the vacuum that normally surrounded rebellious prisoners when they were brought into the courts. The Soledad Brothers became a cause celebre, both nationally and internationally. The publication of George Jackson's letters in Soledad Brother gave liberals, and others who had no previous contact with the prison system, a rare new insight that was to play an important part in developing an outside "prisoner support" movement.

To what extent was this "new"? The Soledad Brothers' case was different from other political trials of the 1960s that received mass support in that all the other cases had involved people who were politically active on the outside, and whose arrest was typically a result of those activities. In the majority of these cases, a mass movement, or at least some community organizing, had taken place, and there was a base from which to draw support.

Although George Jackson himself had become highly politicized during a decade in California prisons, and was actively teaching and organizing other prisoners, he was not initially part of any outside mass movement. Nevertheless, the Soledad Brothers received the support of people who had been involved in civil rights and antiracist struggles, who had fought against US imperialism, and who had learned enough about the functioning of corporate capitalism to be able to make direct connections to the prison movement. For many, prisoners per se became a new type of political prisoner because of the class and racial nature of the system that put so many men and women behind bars. While whole movements did not grow around each and every prisoner, prison and judicial reform groups developed among those sectors of society that had opposed segregation at home and militarism abroad. Specific prisoners, whose political development and spirit of rebelliousness within the prisons got them into trouble with the authorities, were sometimes able to find a strong body of support outside.

Caryl Chessman and George Jackson

George Jackson and the other Soledad Brothers, Drumgo and Clutchette (who were both less politically developed and less articulate when thrust into the limelight), were among the first of the mass of anonymous prisoners to receive this kind of outside support from activists of the 1960s. This was not totally unprecedented, for a similar movement developed around Caryl Chessman at the end of the 1950s. The parallels between the two cases are striking: both Chessman and Jackson came from poor backgrounds; both were given unusually harsh sentences (life for Jackson for a $70 robbery, death for Chessman for robbery and rape) for crimes that it is questionable whether they actually committed; both became self-educated during their years in prison; and both became known to the outside world because they became articulate writers who could plead their cases to a world audience.

But there are also important differences between the two cases. The movement around Chessman developed at the end of a decade of severe repression during which the anticommunism of the Cold War had silenced most forms of political activity. Although his first book, published in 1954, attracted a certain amount of attention and a hard core of supporters, it wasn't until 1958-1959 that the case began to receive mass recognition, first from the media and later from the newly awakened student movement. Chessman always based his argument on his innocence, although much of his liberal support came from those who maintained that, even if guilty, his writings clearly showed that he had been rehabilitated, and that in any event, capital punishment was a barbaric and unfitting penalty for a crime in which no one was killed.

Jackson, on the other hand, became known to the world at the end of a period of intense activism and militancy, both in white and Third World communities. Overtly political in a revolutionary sense, Jackson spent little time avowing his innocence of the original charge that sent him to prison, although it was clear from the facts of the case that the most he had done was sit in a car while another person (with or without Jackson's knowledge) robbed a gas station.

When charged with the killing of the Soledad guard, Jackson, like Chessman, faced the death penalty if convicted. Again like Chessman, Jackson did not focus on the death penalty per se. But neither did he focus on his innocence--although the Soledad Brothers' defense always maintained that the three were not responsible for the guard's death, and that they had been singled out for political reasons (Jackson for being a prison leader, Drumgo and Clutchette for being two of his active followers). Instead, the defense tried to show that the conditions in Soledad were such that, after the unjustified killing of the three black prisoners in the yard, any prisoner who adhered to the Convict Code would have been motivated to retaliate against the guards.

Although the Soledad Brothers ultimately received a great deal of liberal support, the original impetus for the movement that developed around Jackson and his codefendants came from the ranks of radical and revolutionary activists. As such, this movement neither focused on the death penalty nor upon who killed the guard, but rather on the broader issue of the class functions of the prison and legal system. Implicit in this support was the view that the death of the guard was inevitable, that his death was justifiable, if not on a personal level, at least on a broad political level, as the only action prisoners could take to defend themselves against murder.

The most striking similarity between Caryl Chessman and George Jackson is that both ended up executed by the state--Chessman "legally" in a gas chamber, and Jackson "justifiably" at the point of a rifle. Although the two men shared the same fate, they represented very different levels of political development and different periods of political activism. The movement around Chessman formed at the end of an epoch of silence and repression, when liberalizing trends (such as the election of Governor Edmund "Pat" Brown and a liberal Democratic slate to state office) gave people new hope. Its emergence signaled the beginning of a new period of activism, typified by college students who took part in vigils at San Quentin in 1959 and supported militant demonstrations against the House Un-American Activities Committee in San Francisco a month after the convict writer was executed. It was soon thereafter that the civil rights and Free Speech movements developed and later merged into the growing opposition to the war in Vietnam.

It is clear that the movement to support Chessman was intricately connected to this newly developing movement of social protest. It is only speculation, however, as to whether the state's determination to execute him was an early, startled response to this new wave of militancy, or simply the logical behavior of a ruling class that had become accustomed to forcefully repressing all dissent and opposition during the 1950s. It can only be similarly speculated whether or not Jackson was a victim of the opposite pole--a ruling class that no longer enjoyed the "great consensus" of the 1950s and that had become intimidated by the surge of mass militancy. While the death penalty was still in effect in the early 1970s, it is clear that some elements within the state apparatus--even if only at the level of prison officials and guards (though evidence tends to suggest that it went considerably beyond this)--were uncertain enough of the legal machinery, and gas chamber, that Jackson had to be permanently silenced before he could go to trial.

And there was good reason in 1971 for fearing that the courts might not condemn and execute the Soledad Brothers. The government in fact had an increasingly bad track record in getting convictions in political cases throughout the 1960s. The Oakland Seven, accused of felony conspiracy for planning to block Army recruiting at the Oakland Induction Center, were acquitted in April 1969 by a jury that must have been won over, in part, by its own doubts as to the legitimacy of US policies in Vietnam. Black Panther leader Huey Newton, accused of murdering an Oakland policeman, was found guilty only of manslaughter in a trial that ended in late 1968--and even that conviction was overturned in 1970. Another Panther leader, Bobby Seale, had charges of incitement to riot (the outgrowth of demonstrations at the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968) dismissed after the judge had him bound and gagged in the courtroom in the presence of the jury. Though the jury later convicted some of his codefendants--The Chicago 7--their convictions were eventually reversed by a higher court. In April 1971, a New York jury took an hour and a half to acquit all the defendants in the Panther 21 case, who were accused by police and informers of having plotted to blow up department stores and other public places. A month later, a New Haven jury found Ericka Huggins, another Panther, innocent of murder charges, and declared themselves "hung" on her codefendant, Bobby Seale. The judge later dismissed all charges against Seale.

It is no wonder, then, that by the summer of 1971 law enforcement agents--from cops on the beat to guards in prison--had little faith in the reliability of the legal system. If they wanted revolutionary leaders disposed of, they would have to do it themselves, as revelations about the FBI's "Cointelpro" program have recently revealed. Murder was on the agenda. From the viewpoint of the prison authorities, who virulently hated Jackson and even regarded him as the killer of the Soledad guard, there was no reason to murder him (unless one accepts the highly implausible "escape theory" presented by the prosecution in the SQ6 trial) if the courts could be counted on to send him to the gas chamber. True, his writings had caused embarrassment to prison officials who would have preferred to have less attention paid to the inequities of a system they so proudly defended. In addition, the trial of the Soledad Brothers was likely to focus even more attention, nationally and internationally, on what these prisoners were saying. Experience had also shown, however, that after some initial outrage and publicity, sometimes accompanied by "blue ribbon" and legislative investigative commissions, little would be done and the furor would subside. In fact, if the motivation of prison authorities was only to silence Jackson before he could bring them additional discomfort by airing his views at a public trial, their efforts clearly backfired. The assassination of Jackson, if anything, focused even more attention on the failures of the prison system and sparked rebellions in prisons throughout the country. Prisoners participating in a day of mourning for Jackson refused meals at Attica prison in New York in early September (two weeks after his death), touching off a series of events that led to the massive uprising and ensuing massacre of prisoners and hostages by state police. In the year following Jackson's death and the Attica rebellion, liberal as well as radical attention was focused on the nation's prisons and jails. Articles and books were written, conferences held, grand jury and legislative reports published. All uniformly condemned the prison system as outmoded, inhuman, and ineffective. This militancy met with some successes. For example, in March 1971 another San Francisco jury--this time in a civil suit--found prison officials and guards liable for the deaths of the three black prisoners at Soledad in January 1970. The families of Nolan, Edwards, and Miller were awarded a total of $270,000 in damages; nevertheless, there was no criminal action taken against the guard who fired the shots, nor against the guards and administrators who, the jury believed, were directly responsible for the conditions and events leading to the killing of the three men.

Decline of the Prison Movement

By the early 1970s, the prison movement was at its most intense stage and had widespread support from liberal and left organizations. The Soledad Brothers' trial, the assassination of George Jackson, and the massacre at Attica in particular gave the movement new determination and militancy. But, by 1975, the movement had practically ceased to exist. That is not to say that there are not still many people working toward judicial and prison reform. In legislative arenas, and in a number of liberal reform organizations, daily work continues. The survival needs of prisoners still must be met and there are still people trying to provide basic services. But for both good and bad reasons, the movement of the early 1970s that saw prisoners as the revolutionary vanguard, that sang of them as heroes who would "come out to lead you and me," has disappeared.

One effect of this was that the trial of the six men accused of slaying the guards who died the day George Jackson was assassinated received almost no media coverage and no mass support, such as had centered around the trials of the Panthers, the Soledad Brothers, Angela Davis, and some of the anti-Vietnam War cases. The "hard core" of supporters of the Six had to endure nearly four years of legal maneuverings and delays before the case came to trial. Their attempts to gain mass support, media coverage, and money for the defense fund were generally unsuccessful.

There are several possible reasons for the decline of the movement, but the key ones concern the class nature of its constituency and the immaturity of its political line. The student movement, which had given so much support to the prison struggle, went through considerable changes during the 1970s and, with the end of the war in Vietnam, lost its earlier cohesion and momentum. The petty-bourgeois tendencies in the student movement were fueled by the growing economic crisis with its attendant widespread unemployment and cutbacks in the public sector. Concern about jobs and competition for admission to graduate school made students more aware of, and more preoccupied with, their own immediate interests. Also, many political activists who had worked in the prison movement turned to other concerns--community organizing, factory work, supporting the anti-imperialist movement, and building pre-party formations. But they did not, to any great extent, look at the prisons. Consequently, the prison movement was pretty much abandoned on the one hand, to liberal religious and professional organizations and, on the other hand, to ultra-leftists and adventurists. Thus, the reformist and romantic tendencies, which played an important but not overwhelming role in the prison movement in its early days, came to dominate its politics by the mid-1970s.

"The prison movement was always too romantic," observed Charles Garry, the radical attorney who defended many of that movement's heroes and martyrs, and who represented Johnny Larry Spain in the SQ6 case. "People went overboard. They were trying to make revolutionary leaders out of men who were not political when they went in, and had spent years separated from the outside society." Garry noted that it is appropriate to admire and respect such men for their courage and determination in rebelling against an overpowering system and daring to struggle against it from within. It is even necessary to make heroes out of them. "But we shouldn't confuse them with real political leaders," he asserted. It is true that many, or most of the world's great political leaders--Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro--spent time in prison, he stated, but all of them were imprisoned because of their political activities. All of them had demonstrated leadership ability before they were ever arrested. "That simply wasn't the case with many of the prisoners we chose to make our heroes, and nobody bothered to evaluate them to see whether they really could lead a struggle on the outside," Garry claimed. "Our mistakes destroyed the prison movement."

The attorney gave as one example the Chino Escape Case in which several white "revolutionaries" were captured after the prisoner they had helped free turned snitch. Everything about the incident was wrong, from a revolutionary standpoint, the attorney declared. The young radicals from the Venceremos Organization, who adopted the prisoner Beatty as a revolutionary leader, really knew nothing about him. He got outside support by writing articles in a prisoner newspaper about what Che, Fidel, and other revolutionary heroes would do in various situations. But in reality, Garry asserted, he was a hustler, a man who sold heroin inside San Quentin.

The men and women of Venceremos who embraced and decided to help "liberate" Beatty accepted him as a political leader simply on the basis that he was a prisoner who used nicely worded political rhetoric that he got straight out of the texts written by real revolutionary leaders. In the act of freeing him, they shot the unarmed qscort guards who were transporting Beatty, killing one of them (a young Chicano guard). When Beatty turned snitch, he not only implicated the young men and women of Venceremos (and their liberal supporters who helped shelter Beatty and others), but also implicated a young lawyer active in prison cases, who was then permanently barred from California prisons and came close to being disbarred from the law profession.

"The prison movement made too many mistakes like this," declared Garry. "If they'd studied Beatty's background, and his activities in prison, they would have accepted him for what he was instead of making him a hero. The system makes them that way," he went on, "but we don't have to accept them as our leaders." Observing that many men and women develop politically while in prison, the attorney noted: "We've got to watch carefully to see what direction they're developing in--whether they're becoming real revolutionaries, or simply opportunists." Citing the Symbionese Liberation Army as another example, Garry speculated that much of the problem of the prison movement was that it attracted young, politically naive people who were willing to accept prisoners--especially black prisoners--unquestioningly, and follow their lead. "You just don't build a movement around untested 'leaders.'"

Cathy Kornblith, a legal investigator for the SQ6 who has spent many years working with prisoners, agreed that the romanticization of prisoners was one of the problems of the prisoner-support movement. "People on the outside were so eager to grab onto prisoners as leaders that they ignored the voids, the huge areas of inexperience that these men suffered," she observed. "These were men who had spent years inside prisons. They were unaware of many of the events that were occurring on the outside. They'd grown up in ghettos and barrios, and had no experience with radical and campus communities. When some of these prisoner leaders did come out, there was a kind of mutual disappointment. The people outside weren't what the prisoners had expected from reading left publications and getting fiery letters. They weren't up on the reality of meetings, leaflets, interminable discussions, the problems of how to get programs going and keep them going." On the other hand, according to Kornblith, the contact between movement activists and newly politicized prisoners provided a source of hope for those inside, at the same time as the organizing of men and women inside the prisons provided inspiration for those outside. Especially impressive for those outside were the strength and unity of the prisoners' movements. W.L. Nolan and George Jackson in California, as well as the Attica Brothers in New York, shared a key leadership characteristic: the ability to unify people across racial lines, based on their mutual oppression by and resistance to a common source of oppression. In addition to providing a ray of hope--a belief that people on the outside were working to change things--the people who took an interest in prisoners in the late 1960s and early 1970s provided a window into the world for many of the men and women locked away for long periods of time. It is easy to see, then, that the accuracy with which they were reflecting what was going on in that outside world had a lot to do with the course and direction of the prisoners' activities. Too often, say many who were involved in this period, what the outsiders gave the prisoners were false visions, false hopes, and promises.

There were other inherent contradictions in the prison movement that also led to its decline, outside and inside. When supporting prisoners became fashionable, the class basis of the movement was quite varied, including church, educational, and health groups as well as radical leftists. At times these groups were at odds, the liberals seeking simply to reform things, the radicals taking sometimes "ultra-leftist" positions that allowed for no changes short of the total destruction of the prison system. Cathy Komblith described the arrogant attitudes of many left supporters as being based on a great lack of information about the daily lives of prisoners. Radicals often pushed prisoners to take more and more militant stands, a tendency that was at times destructive because it exposed prisoners to severe repression, especially criminal or institutional charges, with which the outside movement often wasn't equipped to deal. To compound the problem, many of the movement attorneys got "burned out." Prisoners are generally very distrustful of attorneys, since most of them feel that if lawyers could or would really fight effectively for their interests, they wouldn't be where they are. The class and racial differences that separate them are enormous, affecting everything from their daily lives to their political philosophies. Part of the effect of this is that legal workers and attorneys who worked on behalf of prisoners, even those who did it most selflessly and honestly, almost unavoidably were resented by their clients. There was a lot of name calling, bitterness, and dissension. There was rarely enough money to pay the attorneys and legal workers an adequate income, and seldom any understanding on the part of prisoners as to why they should even need this money. (What is considered an "adequate income" of course varies from one attorney to another. An established lawyer with a good firm who has to deal with salaries for partners, secretaries, and researchers, as well as rent on expensive offices, obviously has a much higher minimum. But even young lawyers fresh out of law school, with no office or paid help, still have to pay filing fees, court costs, investigators fees, etc.)

This inability of prisoners and lawyers to relate to each other, and the inability of the movement to raise the money to pay the attorneys and legal fees, certainly contributed to the decline of the prison movement in many ways. Prisoners who "took on too much" at the instigation of militants inside or outside the walls ended up with heavy cases and no defense. This has tended to make other prisoners more cautious. Many have decided to cool it--"They don't want to land in the Adjustment Centers," observed Cathy Komblith, "they want to get out."

San Quentin Six

All of this had its effect on the San Quentin Six case. At its start, the prisoners' movement was at its height, and each of the Six had in some way been involved. Johnny Spain had participated in food strikes and work stoppages, and was a recent member of the Black Panther Party. Hugo Pinell had a long history of rebelliousness against prison authorities and of standing up for the rights of other prisoners. He was one of the first to file a legal protest at the death of Nolan, Edwards, and Miller in Soledad. He later refused an offer of early parole in exchange for giving false testimony against George Jackson. At about the same time as the three blacks were shot in Soledad, a black inmate named Fred Billingslea was gassed to death in his cell at San Quentin. Willie Tate and David Johnson were among those who signed affidavits protesting his killing. Luis Talamantez, an organizer of Chicano prisoners, stressed the unity of all prisoners in the face of the prison's attempts to pit black and brown prisoners against each other. When James McClain, a black prisoner accused of assaulting a guard in retaliation for Billingslea's murder, stood trial, Talamantez was one of McClain's defense witnesses. Each of these prisoners soon felt the effects of their solidarity and resistance: each found himself brought up on new charges and placed in the AC at San Quentin. They shared the AC with Soledad Brothers George Jackson, Fleeta Drunigo, and John Clutchette, on August 21, 1971, when the prison and police agencies successfully carried out their repeated efforts to silence George Jackson.

At the time of the indictment of the SQ6 on charges of conspiring with Jackson to escape and kill guards and other inmates, a number of people around the country and around the world were intensely aware of the failures of the US prison system. They had been awakened to this problem in large part by Jackson's poignant and analytical letters in Soledad Brother, by his subsequent assassination, and by the massacre that followed the Attica rebellion. If they had been brought to trial immediately, it is likely that there would have been the massive support around their case that had been generated for some of the other political trials, even though none of the Six was the kind of movement or media hero or political leader that Huey Newton, Angela Davis, or George Jackson had been. But for a variety of reasons, the case was not actually brought to trial until nearly four years after the events that caused it; and this time lapse had varying effects on the case itself. The case was long delayed in pretrial procedures for reasons that were in themselves both good and bad. On the one hand, delays were caused by the prisoners' long, frustrating battle to be represented by attorneys of their choice--or at least ones acceptable to them--in the face of absence of funds to pay private attorneys, and the judge's reluctance to appoint political attorneys to defend them. In the end, this was resolved in a number of ways.

Charles Garry took on the case of Johnny Spain without being appointed. Frank Cox, the public defender appointed to the case, was always considered acceptable by his client, David Johnson. (In any event, one of the Six would have to be represented by a public defender in a case involving indigents.) Willie Tate, Fleeta Drumgo, and Luis Talamantez each ended up with an appointed attorney who met their political as well as legal needs. In the case of Talamantez, however, this meant the removal of one unacceptable attorney in the middle of the trial, and in the case of Drumgo, the slow but total political metamorphosis of his attorney during the course of the trial proceedings. (Mike Dufficy, a former assistant district attorney and conservative Republican at the time of his appointment, initially took the case solely on the basis of his belief that the evidence against Drumgo was simply too flimsy to stand up in any court, or even to reasonably indict a man. By the time the trial began, his investigation into the background and facts of the events which took place on August 21, 1971, and his experience with prison and prosecution cover-up practices, made him one of the strongest advocates of the approach that stressed the assassination of George Jackson as the real focus of this case.) Hugo Pinell resolved his problems with unsatisfactory court-appointed attorneys by becoming his own attorney when the Supreme Court gave prisoners the absolute right to defend themselves.

The fight for adequate representation, however, was only one cause of the delays. Another, more positive reason was that for a period of one year, the indictments against the Six were dismissed by a judge who agreed that the absence of blue-collar workers, nonwhites, and young people on the Marin Grand Jury denied them a jury of their peers. Proceedings were resumed when the California Supreme Court overturned this decision. The long delays and the length of the trial itself certainly meant a loss of support for the Six in some ways, since the prison movement (as part of the radical movement as a whole) went into a period of decline during that time. The case also became "stale"; it was no longer of news interest to the press, as it had been immediately after the death of the famous convict writer (with all the dispute over the nature of his death) and the bloody killings of the prison guards. The almost total media blackout of the case kept movement interest from reviving, and prevented the stirring of interest among new people. At the same time, banner headlines caused people to line up on the night before the beginning of the robbery trial of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst in order to attend it, although in a political and historical context this case was clearly less significant than that of the San Quentin Six.

Nonetheless, attorneys for the defense were quick to point out that the effects of the delays and the 16 months it took for the trial to elapse were not totally negative. Mike Dufficy pointed out that the attorneys became more aware of the broader, more political issues during the course of their long period of investigation of the case. The public also became more willing to accept some of these issues (assassination of political leaders, official cover-up) because of the exposure of some of the same techniques at higher levels. If the apparent decline of "the Movement" and increased governmental repression (from "Cointelpro" to SB-1) had a dampening effect, Watergate and all its repercussions had the opposite effect. Thus, attorneys were able to say to the jury at the end of the trial not only that the events of August 21 were the direct result of a plan on the part of various law enforcement agencies to assassinate a black political prisoner, but also that various law enforcement agents (from San Quentin guards to the District Attorney) had conspired to cover up the true events of that day and bring false charges against six innocent men.

In 1971, this might still have been somewhat hard for most of the public to believe, despite the positive trend in some of the political trials of the late 1960s. But after Watergate, after exposures of the FBI's "Cointelpro" brought about by the Fred Hampton case (among others), after assorted other "dirty tricks" against movement activists and black militants ranging from Julius Rosenberg to the Black Panther Party (largely revealed as a result of the Freedom of Information Act), and after disclosure of CIA plans to assassinate Fidel Castro and other foreign leaders, it is not so difficult for the American people to understand and accept that, if their government will stop at nothing to prevent revolution or even radical social change abroad (as witnessed by Vietnam and Chile, among others), it will likewise go to great lengths to prevent the rise of such movements at home. In his closing address to the jury, attorney John Hill asked, "Are plots to assassinate Lumumba and Castro conceivable, but those to assassinate George Jackson not conceivable?" In this context, the suggestion that men sworn to uphold the law would conspire to kill a prisoner and then cover it up--at the cost of more lives--becomes much more realistic and credible.

Not all of these ideas had been completely formulated by the defense at the beginning of the trial, however. According to several of the attorneys, the very length of that process itself enabled them to move to much higher levels and toward a greater degree of unity than had existed at the beginning. At the onset, if asked what the case was about, and why they were involved, most of the attorneys would have stated the basis of the defense of their particular clients and reiterated the belief that there was simply insufficient evidence of their guilt. Some, like Garry, would have responded in terms of political persecution and racism; whereas Hill (who had filed the original "wrongful death" suit on behalf of the families of Nolan, Edwards, and Miller) emphasized the combination of racism and an inhumane prison system. But there was no real cohesion among the defense team as to how these various factors would play a role in the trial itself.

Even now, when different people involved in the legal or political defense of the SQ6 are asked what the case was all about, or what its historical significance is, various answers are given:

* It was about six men who were framed on charges of killings they didn't commit because of their political and organizational activities inside the prisons.

* It was about prison conditions, what they do to people, and society's responsibility for these conditions. It was about the racism and inherent injustice of the criminal justice system.

* It was about the unprecedented utilization of extreme police state tactics, such as the chaining of defendants and the super-security measures employed against all participants in the trial.

* It was about the assassination of George Jackson and the state's cover-up of that murder.

The opening statements of Pinell and the five attorneys were just as varied. They ranged from "He didn't do it" to the discussion of prison conditions, the Convict Code, as well as charges of police conspiracy and planned assassination. Pinell's opening statement was at such odds with the political and legal strategies of his codefendants that four of them moved (unsuccessfully) to have their cases separated. But by the time of closing arguments, the course of the trial itself had molded all six defendants and their attorneys into a degree of unity that enabled them to appear, for the first time, as a defense team. It found itself in agreement on several key issues: (1) that the murder of George Jackson was both planned and organized by the state, and thus constituted an essential element to be conveyed to the jury in establishing the innocence of each defendant; (2) that prison investigators and the District Attorney's office had resorted to highly questionable means, including producing fraudulent testimony, changing their own witnesses' stories, and hiding or ignoring evidence that would have tended to show the innocence of some of the defendants; (3) that while not exonerating the actual perpetrators of the assaults and killings committed on August 21, the barbaric and dehumanizing conditions of life in the San Quentin Adjustment Center, and society's responsibility for these conditions, were a vital element of the defense.

Of the six defendants, four repeatedly stated that they had not participated at all. Hugo Pinell stated that he helped tie up some of the guards, but had done so as a defensive measure once the takeover had been initiated by the guards' attempt on Jackson's life. He denied killing any of them. Johnny Spain, citing his long medical and psychiatric history of blackouts under stress, said he simply did not recall what happened on that day prior to the point at which he found himself in the prison courtyard. Rather than arguing, then, that the conditions of life in maximum security--described with both drama and painful, analytical detail by doctors Rundel and Zimbardo--justified the killing of guards (allegedly) by these six prisoners, the defense claims that such conditions affect every prisoner equally, thus raising the previously mentioned possibility that any one or more of the 27 inmates housed in the San Quentin Adjustment Center on August 21 could have been responsible for the killings. The prosecution, in its own way, helped give credence to this argument by its admitted lack of knowledge as to who actually committed the killings, and by its failure to attribute any specific motivation for the killing of these guards to these particular prisoners. Relying on a general "escape-conspiracy" theory, the District Attorney postulated that these six men either had prior knowledge of a Jackson escape plan, or, seeing it in progress on August 21, decided to join in. The killing of the guards and the two white inmates was attributed to the need on the part of the accused prisoners to silence any possible witnesses against them.

The weakness in arguing this type of motivation lies in the fact that it could easily be attributed to any prisoner in the AC in the absence of evidence specifically linking these six prisoners to Jackson's "conspiracy." The role of capitalist society in producing prisons that create the kind of dehumanizing conditions, hatred, and violence that are seen throughout our prison system cropped up over and over again when defense attorneys talked about the case--even before the verdict was reached. John Hill, who initially thought that whoever killed the guards at San Quentin should be punished, and concerned himself only with Willie Tate's obvious innocence, said that by the time the case reached trial, "For me, the issue went beyond that." Referring to a statement made in his closing argument, he described the issue as "whether we have reached such a base and vile position in the progress of humanity that we can condone a prison system so inhumane that it drives men to madness, to violence, and then throws a gun amongst them like fuel on a conflagration." Hill was quick to add that he did not believe that the men charged with the crime were guilty, or that the District Attorney even knew or cared who was guilty. What he wanted from the case, he said, was for every man and woman on the jury, or in any way involved in the case, to come out of this trial saying: "My god, if I were plucked from society at 14 years of age--like Willie Tate and most of the others were--and thrown into this maelstrom, the Adjustment Center, chances are better than even that I would have participated in the butchery that occurred on that day."

Mike Dufficy, the conservative ex-District Attorney who, like Hill, started out focusing primarily on his own client's obvious innocence, commented that once he got into the case, "It became obvious that there were bigger issues than the individual charges. The whole concept of prisons became an issue: the conditions of the AC, who was in there, why they went to prison in the first place." He also soon saw that there "was something wrong" with the official story of how George Jackson died, "and that became an issue, too." Then came the indications of a prison/District Attorney cover-up, and a law enforcement conspiracy. "By the final arguments, things came together," he stated. For the first time, it became possible for all six to get acquitted. This opportunity arose because the various separate defenses had come together, going beyond the individual cases into issues much bigger than the question of what happened during 25 minutes in the AC on August 21. "If even one juror believes that the state murdered George Jackson, or becomes thoroughly enraged by the conditions in the AC, or interprets the massive cover-up of the events on August 21 as indicating that all the guards are liars--no one gets convicted."

The Verdict

While awaiting the verdicts, attorney John Hill (who successfully represented Willie Tate) commented: "If everyone is convicted, people will say that these are bad men who got punished. The same old rotten system will continue. If all are acquitted, I think people would be moved to say, 'Something's got to be done.' But a mixed verdict won't have any broad, overall social or political impact. In fact, it could tend to exonerate the system. People would believe that the bad guys got punished and the good guys were freed, so that shows that our judicial system really works."

Although the verdicts clearly prohibit the supporters of the SQ6 from concluding that the jury had concurred with their analysis of the prison system, or their contention that Jackson had been the victim of a political murder, neither is there clear-cut support for District Attorney (DA) Jerry Herman's statements that the jury's decision was a vindication of the prosecution position. Initial comments by some of the jurors raise as many questions as they provide answers to the enigma of how they reached their decisions. Final analysis must await in-depth interviews with each of the jurors, but some general observations can be made now.

The jury did not see the case primarily in terms of the assassination of George Jackson or, apparently, fully understand the relevance of his death in terms of the charges against the six men on trial. Although a good deal of testimony about how the black revolutionary was killed was presented during the trial (over the strenuous objections of the DA and the reluctance of the judge), and two of the defense attorneys dedicated much of their final arguments to showing that the prosecution lied about his death and then covered it up, the jurors indicated that they had not even discussed or considered this aspect of the case throughout their deliberations.

The defense contention that there was a conspiracy carried out by law enforcement agencies (including the California Department of Corrections) against George Jackson was at least partially believed by the jury. But so too was the prosecution's assertion of an escape conspiracy, which posited that Jackson received a gun from attorney Steve Bingham on August 21, and that Johnny Spain somehow joined in that conspiracy. The ambiguity with which jurors answered questions on this topic, however, led to speculation that there were perhaps certain "mental compromises" made on the part of the jurors in reaching their decisions. One investigator for the defense observed: "It seems from talking to jurors that the physical evidence pointing to Johnny planning to escape--bullets and escape map in his cell, his running out of the AC after George took over--convinced the jury that Johnny Spain was guilty of something. I don't think that the jurors were really convinced of all aspects of the Bingham-Jackson escape plot outlined by the DA. When we asked them specifically about the idea of the gun being hidden in the wig, they said things like: 'We had to believe it,' 'That's what was charged,' 'Obviously I believed it or there wouldn't have been an agreement on conspiracy.' One juror in particular was very revealing when she said, 'In order to find any defendant--that is, Spain--guilty of conspiracy, you have to conclude that Bingham and Jackson conspired. There were still questions.'"

The investigator went on to say, "I think what that means is that the jury, feeling Johnny Spain was guilty of something, didn't feel right about acquitting him. But the judge's instructions to the jury were very specific: the only way they could find any of the six guilty of conspiracy was if they believed the Bingham-Jackson conspiracy, because that was the only one charged. So even though they weren't convinced beyond a reasonable doubt of that conspiracy, they made the mental compromise of accepting it because they were given no alternatives, short of finding him not guilty."

Spain's attorney, Charles Garry, reacted angrily to the verdict, stating that it "can't stand under any stretch of the imagination." He pointed out that "Johnny was acquitted of everything he might have done himself--the assault charge against him. He was convicted of conspiracy--but what conspiracy?" Garry speculated that the jury either didn't understand, or didn't accept, the instruction that they could only find Spain guilty of the conspiracy that was charged if they were fully convinced of the existence of that conspiracy, and Spain's participation in it. "They talk about bullets and an escape map found in Johnny's cell," the attorney observed. "But those were never used or even taken out of hiding on August 21. There's nothing to tie Johnny Spain into a Jackson-Bingham escape plot, even if you believed it. And no evidence was ever presented that he aided and abetted in the shooting deaths of the two guards whose murder he was convicted of."

Garry, as well as the attorneys for Hugo Pinell and David Johnson, indicated that appeals would be filed on behalf of all three defendants. Although none would comment specifically on the bases of appeal until further investigation has been carried out, at least one was obvious: the high level of "security" measures employed by the court and the Sheriff's Department throughout the trial and, in particular, the chaining and shackling of the prisoner defendants and their inmate witnesses. During the trial, the California Supreme Court ruled in another case that the chaining and shackling of prisoners in court, in the absence of a hearing to establish the necessity of such restraints, was grounds for a mistrial. Ironically, the prisoner on whose behalf that decision was made was testifying for the defense in the SQ6 case on the day the decision was handed down. But the SQ6 trial judge, Henry Broderick, chose to ignore that ruling, simply stating that all the jurors in this case had agreed not to consider or be affected by the chains. If that decision holds, the chaining of the defendants without a hearing would in itself be grounds for granting new trials to the three convicted defendants. It is expected that each will present a number of other bases for appeal as well.

Meanwhile, freedom was fast in coming for the three defendants acquitted of all charges. Willie Tate, the only prisoner released on bail as a result of having completed his original prison sentence prior to the trial, walked out of the courtroom a free man. Fleeta Drumgo and Luis Talarnantez were expecting parole hearings in late August and early September, but the Adult Authority surprised everyone by moving their hearings up to August 18, and granting them parole within a week from their hearings. Although the suddenness was not expected, the paroles were. Both men had served far beyond the normal amount of time prisoners usually serve for their original crimes (Drumgo was in for second-degree burglary, Talarnantez for armed robbery), and would have been eligible for parole years ago if they had not been facing these new charges.

Drumgo, in fact, would have been eligible for parole at the time he was first accused along with Jackson and Clutchette of killing a Soledad guard in 1970. That charge launched the three Soledad Brothers into the national spotlight--but also added years of confinement in maximum-security conditions to the terms they were already serving. In the end Jackson lay dead, shot by a guard's bullet; Clutchette and Drumgo were eventually acquitted of the Soledad charge by an all-white San Francisco jury. But while Clutchette left prison on parole soon thereafter, Drumgo had to spend an additional four-and-one-half years after his acquittal in San Quentin's AC, until he was eventually exonerated.

The verdict in the San Quentin Six trial culminates an important but troubled period in the prison movement. It is testimony to the resilience and discipline of the Six and their supporters that they were able to achieve a partial victory during a time when the prison movement was divided and in decline. But the issues raised by the trial are by no means over. Attorneys and defense organizations plan to continue to fight for the acquittal of the three convicted prisoners through legal appeals and political organizing. Moreover, the events of August 21, 1971, and their intricate relationship to other important events--the killings at Soledad, the Soledad Brothers case, the murder of Fred Billingslea at San Quentin, Jonathan Jackson's death in 1970, and the trials of Angela Davis and Ruchell Magee--still remain unclear. These historical interconnections are unlikely to be explored in court, because the rules of legal relevancy usually exclude the kind of far-ranging political investigation that is required. The true and full story remains to be told.

Karen Wald *

* Karen Wald is a writer and freelance journalist from the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Area, where she also worked as a bilingual teacher and college instructor. Since 1969 she has been writing about Cuba, where she has maintained temporary residence since 1982 as a foreign correspondent. She is the author of Children of Che: Child Care and Education in Cuba (Ramparts Press, 1978). As part of her support of the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s, she covered the trial of Huey Newton. In 1968, attorney Fay Stender asked her to become involved in the Soledad Brothers case. She corresponded with and visited George Jackson and Fleeta Drumgo, who was indicted in the San Quentin Six case after Jackson's death. She was involved in these cases as a political supporter, an organizer of the defense efforts and paralegal investigator, as a friend of some of the defendants, and as a journalist.
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Title Annotation:Foundations
Author:Wald, Karen
Publication:Social Justice
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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