He is still unaccustomed, he says, to the sound of his own name.
Stephen Mitchell Bingham. In the courtroom he lowers himself into a chair at the defense table, his fat leather briefcase laid open before him. The hair is curly, still, but graying now around the temples and across the top; when he needs to examine small print he reaches into the breast pocket of his well-cut suit and pulls out half-size black reading glasses, the kind that balance soberly on the end of the nose.
The People of the State of California, Plaintiff, v. Stephen Mitchell Bingham, Defendant. His voice is high and soft, so tentative at first that it is difficult to imagine what he must sound like when he is angry. "I want people to know I didn't do this," he says, at breaks in the pretrial proceedings. "I was basically tried and convicted by officials at the prison," he says. At least a few of the reporters who write this down must have been too young to pay much attention when he disappeared; surely there are prospective jurors, as the trial marks its official opening today, who had scarcely entered high school when the Marin County district attorney made official the charges now before the court: that Stephen Bingham, then 29 years old and part of what with indefatigable optimism called itself The Movement, entered San Quentin prison one August afternoon in 1971 and used an unguarded moment in the visiting room to pass to a prisoner an automatic weapon that set off an attempted prison break and the death of six men.
The District Attorney of the County of Marin, State of California, hereby accuses Stephen Mitchell Bingham, of a Felony, to wit: Murder. For 13 years the name appeared on arrest warrants and on multiple-page indictments and in newspaper articles, where it was generally accompanied by a grainy black-and-white photograph of an unsmiling young man, the face slender and probably classically handsome under the mustache and goatee. Adjectives like "radical" and "idealistic," certain indicia of a particular period in recent history, usually appeared alongside the name, and also, with some frequency, "scion," in case the patronymic alone was not enough to invoke the genteel and politically weighty eastern lineage that had produced him. He was dead, one read, or living in Canada. He was drinking beers at a cantina in the Peruvian Andes. A 1973 newspaper article tallied a dozen famous people who had vanished amid some drama from the public eye; there in the illustrative lineup, along with snapshots or police mockups of the Zodiac killer and D.B. Cooper and several prominent members of the Weather Underground, was the sober face of Stephen Bingham.
He was called Mystery Lawyer, Connecticut Blueblood, Celebrated Fugitive. When he arranged through intermediaries 11 years ago to have a former law school classmate interview him without revealing where the interview took place, the account appeared on the front page of The New York Times; the Times man, identifying their meeting place only as "a Canadian city," reported that Bingham wished people to know that "living underground has not weakened me," and that he did not expect to see his family and former friends again.
The indictment that named him, a document that included 12 separate accusations of violent felonies, awaited him for a decade and a half in the files of the Marin County Superior Court, where it remained one of the more dispassionate reminders of an afternoon referred to years later in print as the San Quentin Bloodbath. Aug. 21, 1971, 2:30 to 5 p.m.: Three prison guards and two prisoners murdered, shot or stabbed or slashed across the throat with prison-made razor knives. Three guards left alive enough to describe, many months afterward, the slitting of their own throats. George Jackson, the 29-year-old convict whose prison writings and Black Panther loyalties had inspired such passionate interest that Jean-Paul Sartre had reportedly been prepared to testify in court on his behalf, shot to death by guards in a northeast prison yard.
The last visitor to see Jackson alive, the 29-year-old attorney named Stephen Bingham, signed out of San Quentin at 2:30 that afternoon and disappeared five hours later into the dim post-1960s terrain of the American underground. From the evening of his flight to this month's final preparations for trial, he left behind one of the tangled and accusatory choruses of the times: He had smuggled to Jackson the gun that began the violence and fled because authorities knew it, or he had smuggled nothing but fled because he believed prison officials would do anything to frame him, or he had inadvertently carried in a gun brought by a woman the police never charged, or Jackson died in a conspiracy that was meant to end as it did, with the famous Panther dead and the prison lawyer frightened away into a silence that lasted nearly 15 years.
Ramsey Clark and Noam Chomsky and Julian Bond have publicly joined the defense committee, lending to the professionally printed pamphlets their names -- "Stephen Bingham has devoted his life to freedom and equality for all," reads Clark's quote on the pamphlet's cover -- and their own public assessments of what was and was not. Since Bingham appears to be the only living witness to the crucial hour in the visiting room, much of this matter must hinge now on some grander assessment of what was and was not, as though veteran combatants had stepped out once more to argue the American climate at the close of the 1960s.
The state prison system was or was not a bastion of "institutionalized racism"; Bingham was or was not a "scapegoat" in a prison-instigated cover-up; a radical white prison attorney in the summer of 1971 was or was not, as an associate San Quentin warden suggested that afternoon, one of a dangerous collection of "dilettante revolutionaries" who refused to see what would become of their romance with black men incarcerated for violent crimes. The warden who said that, now retired, says Bingham certainly looks like a stockbroker these days, in his good gray suit. Beyond that the warden does not have a great deal to say about Stephen Bingham, but he remembers with some precision how he told the guard's wife that her husband was dead, and how her daughters came home afterward, not yet knowing, and the wife knelt to give them crackers to eat. "As though she were giving them communion," the warden says.
"We all obviously have grown older -- people's hair is gray. And the lines are more drawn on their faces. And yet they're the same." Bingham laughs a little, evidently lightly amused by the graying of so much hair; his own, particularly when it crowns the suit, makes him look like a dignified and somewhat prosperous member of the California bar.
The irony of this, made richer by the fact that annual dues paid by his Connecticut family have ensured that he remains in good standing before the California bar, is not lost on him. "It's not easy to lose all of the momentum of 29 years of life, which has a certain direction to it," he says. "You know, I'm being represented by lawyers, all of whom are younger than I am . . . and what am I going to do now? Am I picking up the pieces of what I left before?"
Eighteen months ago, after first passing word through the man he had designated his attorney here, Bingham came back to San Francisco. He appeared one morning, the very site of his surfacing clearly a public comment about the community he wished to rejoin, in a San Francisco church whose pastor has for many years vocally taken the part of the poor and the politically disenfranchised. Gathered to greet Bingham were men and women who had known him before he left, many of them still practicing lawyers here; Bingham embraced them and read a long statement declaring that he had left in fear for his life, that he had smuggled nothing into San Quentin, and that he now believed a fair trial would prove his innocence. Then he drove across the bay to surrender formally to the Marin County sheriff's department.
It was a well-orchestrated arrival, predictably attended by a television camera crew eager for a glimpse at what had become of the famous elusive face. "It was such a moving experience -- it was overwhelming -- and yet it was also coming back into the teeth of the machine," Bingham says. "It was also difficult on a personal level, because my whole life, for 13 years, had been defined in exactly the opposite way. If I was walking into some place where there might be people, someone just taking a picture or something out of doors or whatever, I'd consciously avoid finding myself in the picture."
He is 43, married, working part-time in a law office, and living in San Francisco, where friends have helped set him up in a shared house that requires him to pay minimal rent. As of today, he is formally on trial for conspiracy and two counts of murder in the alleged smuggling of the gun. His wife is a dark-haired French-speaking woman who lived with him for some years while he was away; her own nationality and background, like every other detail of the 13 years Bingham spent hiding from federal authorities, have remained a secret that Bingham says his attorneys have advised him not to disclose, as an effort to protect people who befriended him during those years, until he is required to do so at his trial.
"It's so frustrating for me that I'm not able to get into that a lot," he says. "I have always argued that I wanted to talk about all of that."
He says he was doing "artistic work," something grand in scope, like a novel, although he says he was not writing a novel. He says some of the work took four years to complete, and that he found it important to conclude this work before coming back. He says he learned construction skills and that people around him shared his political views, and although he declines to say whether anyone knew his real name or the details of his flight, he says the disguise he took on was as minimal as he felt able to make it.
"I just personally had such great difficulty with the mechanics of, you know, having to present superficially a somewhat different story about who I was," Bingham says. "And the flip side of that coin is that I had to be myself, as I really am. And it is in some ways, I think, a confirmation of how much I succeeded in that, is the reaction and support from people who knew me out there and did not know who I was -- and have been so supportive of me now that they do know."
He is hesitant, choosing carefully the phrasing with which he will circumvent more than a decade of his life. He does not use the word underground, but speaks of having been "away," as though a long ocean cruise has just come to a close. He seems to be checking the quality of his own vocabulary, mentioning "social justice" and then observing aloud that the phrase has become draped in cliche'. It is as though Bingham must know what a Rip Van Winkle quality the muting of his entire fourth decade has forced on him, mired as he is in an era of moon landings and antiwar marches and the Richard Nixon presidency. Unless the prosecutors deliver some resounding surprise, their only refBingham fled and how long he stayed in hiding; most of their evidence was collected in 1971 and has not left the Marin County courthouse since. There are an assortment of photographs, a portion of a Marin County map, a page from the register listing visitors to San Quentin's east gate. There is a handmade gun. There is the frayed vestige of an Afro wig, its netting flecked with dried debris that came, prosectors will argue, from the prison toilet where George Jackson stuffed the wig after wearing it to conceal the 8 1/2-inch gun that Bingham carried into jail.
"If Bingham's guilty," says Terrence Boren, the Marin County assistant district attorney who is leading the prosecution, "why is it any less right or proper or appropriate to do it now than it was then? That fact that somebody disappears, memory fades, evidence grows old -- does that entitle him to a better fate vis-a -vis the justice system than he had before?"
It is, by the state's own account, a curious and so far entirely circumstantial case. Aug. 21, 1971, 10:15 a.m.: Bingham arrives at the east gate of San Quentin and requests a routine visit with George Jackson, whom he has visited on several earlier occasions. Signing in at the same time as Bingham is a woman identifying herself as Vanita Anderson, a legal investigator for another attorney working regularly with Jackson. Bingham carries a sheaf of papers and passes without incident through the metal detector; Anderson carries a large briefcase, which is found upon inspection to contain a tape recorder later estimated by the inspecting guard at about 6 inches wide, 5 to 6 inches thick, and 8 to 10 inches long.
The guard removes the tape recorder's battery case cover, but does not remove the batteries or check to see whether the tape recorder is in working order.
The visitors are delayed. Anderson finally is denied entrance; a new regulation limits the number of visits by investigators. Bingham is approved and prepares to enter the visiting room.
The guard asks Bingham whether he plans to take a tape recorder in with him. Bingham replies that he has not brought a tape recorder. Anderson -- this is still the account in court papers from the prosecution -- offers him hers. Bingham enters the visiting room carrying his sheaf of papers and the tape recorder, in Anderson's attache' case.
George Jackson and Stephen Bingham are together in the visiting room, with one brief interruption during which Jackson says Bingham needs to get some additional legal papers, from 1:22 until approximately 2:20 p.m. A guard observes them from time to time but does not keep watch through the entire visit. The wire screen between them, separating prisoner from visitor, has been left open.
Bingham and Anderson sign out together at 2:30 p.m. Jackson returns to the area of his cell. When a guard notices something shiny in his hair, Jackson pulls a gun from under the wig he is wearing. "You got me," he says, and then, quoting a passage from Ho Chi Minh, "The dragon has come."
There is more, certainly, that the state will move to introduce: a human hair found inside the gun mechanism; handwritten letters, allegedly indicating that an escape plot was in the works; a piece of paper, which the prosecutor will argue was passed to Bingham during the visit, on which the traces of "apparently erased" words read, "Take the bullets out of the bag -- hurry and give me the piece in the bag -- keep the bullets."
But there is no state witness to the passing of a weapon. There are no charges pending against Vanita Anderson; indeed, Anderson has never been subpoenaed or called to testify, and there is no indication that the state plans to do so now.
"She never visited Jackson," says Terrence Boren, the Marin County district attorney in charge of the prosecution, "and I have nothing to indicate she knew what she was carrying in."
What about Bingham? "By the time his visit with Jackson was going on, he knew what was being provided," Boren says. "Whether he knew what was going on before that, I don't know."
Boren is a soft-spoken man, mustachioed and balding and physically smaller than Bingham. The department he works for has lived with this case, as anxious defense attorneys like to point out, for nearly 15 years; in March 1975, the six prisoners originally indicted with Bingham were brought to court for what proved to be the longest criminal trial in Marin County history. It was a darkly theatrical affair, with most of the defendants kept handcuffed and shackled to their chairs throughout the proceedings, and it was not until summer 1976 that the weary jury brought in its verdict: one defendant guilty of murder and conspiracy, two defendants guilty of assault, three acquitted of all charges.
The daily Superior Court calendar referred to the trial as Stephen Bingham et al., and Bingham's defense attorneys have suggested they will raise some of the same arguments now: that prisoners might have obtained guns by seizing them from guards who were breaking prison rules by carrying weapons; that prison officials, either through deliberate conspiracy or massive negligence, might have prodded Jackson into a doomed escape attempt that would give them an excuse to kill him.
They will surely bring up the failure to subpoena or charge Anderson. They will argue that Jackson could not possibly have emerged from the visiting room in a wig concealing both ammunition and a weapon that, as one defense committee member observes, approaches the size of a Princess telephone. They will portray Bingham as a man of compassion -- "this guy has given his life for a cause characterized by sensitivity and caring about people," lead attorney M. Gerald Schwartzbach says -- who had good reason to fear that concocted charges against him could send him to a prison where his life would be endangered.
Marin County prosecutors have heard this contention for a very long time now; "ludicrous" is the term Boren seems to prefer. "To me, it defies reason that if he's innocent he would run away for 13 years and then come back and say, 'I was framed,' " Boren says. "The thought that comes to mind, frankly, is if he had it in his power to expose, as he now says, that he was framed, why wait 15 years to blow that trumpet?"
He lived, by the standards of a particular community then settling itself into the odd aura of Berkeley 1971, a normal life. He shared a collective house, just south of the Berkeley line. He had a mattress on the floor, some political posters on his walls, and a small collection of artifacts from his Peace Corps tour in Sierra Leone. There were three women in the house, and another male attorney, and a man who had served time in prison for resisting the draft. They ate meals together, sat through evening house meetings, argued about feminism. Their lives, as they perceived them, were "political"; the word had become a kind of encoded personality gauge, labeling those who had studied Marxist-Leninist thought, or at least professed to, and who carried with them certain markers of the era: weekly study groups, antiwar organizing, tenants' union activity, work with the United Farm Workers' grape boycott.
Bingham, by then 29, divorced and finished with the University of California's Boalt Hall law school, was unremarkable either by temperament or background in that community. He had left Yale to travel south with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, had been arrested and beaten during Mississippi civil rights work, had temporarily abandoned law school to enter the Peace Corps, had worked with the farm workers, had visited Cuba. His family and his eastern preparatory school background seem to have attracted little attention here; it was not unusual to encounter children of the well-heeled among rosters of the "political," and people who knew him then say Bingham was a serious young man who maintained an unaffected reserve about that part of his past.
"He was unassuming," says Doron Weinberg, an attorney who shared Bingham's communal Oakland house. "I don't know whether 'gentleness' is exactly the right word, but there was a way he carried himself with an air of -- there was almost an ethereal quality about him, something vaguely elusive about him. And in the midst of people who were a lot more hotheaded and angry, he was a very special person."
He was, in fact, a "scion." His grandfather had been a governor of Connecticut and a U.S. senator, his uncle had been elected to the House of Representatives, and his father, now a probate judge, served in the Connecticut state senate after founding a respected magazine of 1930s third-party radicalism. Bingham's mother, interviewed about her son during the mid-1970s, was described as smoking cigarettes on the veranda of the 18th-century family farm home in Salem. "I do not think it is correct to describe us as wealthy," Mrs. Alfred Bingham told the newspaperman. "I would say perhaps well-to-do."
When Bingham began taking an interest in what was loosely referred to then as the "prison movement," that, too, was in keeping with the times. Much of the white left had been fascinated by the defiant emergence of the Black Panthers, with their brandished weapons and their unassailable proletarian credentials, and the principal attendant legal interest frequently involved convicted felons who wrote stirring Panther-inspired essays from their prison cells. Bingham was not a major player -- other lawyers and organizers had been far more public in their defense of prisoners and their pressing of suits against the prison system -- but he had begun, without discussing it at great length with many of his friends, to visit Jackson at San Quentin, ostensibly to discuss filing a civil rights suit on behalf of the men inside.
On Aug. 21, after signing out of San Quentin, Bingham visited an uncle in Berkeley and spent what by all accounts was a pleasant but otherwise unmemorable hour and a half in polite conversation. He arrived at home as Weinberg was cooking supper.
"I remember him kind of breezing in, opening the pot -- I was making some kind of chowder or something," Weinberg says. He says Bingham told him a meeting would keep him from dinner that night. "Friendly and loose as could be," Weinberg says. "Apologized about the meeting." Then Bingham left the house, climbed onto his motorcycle, and disappeared for 13 years.
"I always knew I wanted to come back," Bingham says. "And after a relatively short period of time of just total fear for my own life, after I left, I think I knew that I was going to come back."
It was rational, Bingham says, for an innocent man to believe in 1971 that an invented charge against him would condemn him to a prison where numerous other men, including prison guards, would want to kill him. Once established in his new home, he says, it took considerable time to decide that it might now be safe to come back.
"One of the ironies of this case is, the strongest thing that the state has, in a way, is my flight," he says. "And on some level, whether my flight is a year, or two, or 13 years, in terms of flight as an issue, doesn't matter."
He has specified at the outset that his lawyers have instructed him not to talk about what happened the day of the San Quentin violence, but he is asked the broader question: Why ought it be difficult to imagine a committed young attorney, convinced of the system's evils, smuggling a weapon to a convict he admired?
"I think it's inconceivable," Bingham says. "Anybody who is not completely out of his mind would have realized that giving Jackson a 2 1/4-pound gun and all those clips of ammunition and this unbelievable wig, which doesn't even look like his hair at all, was essentially an invitation to suicide. And I think the state knows that."
What of the second scenario -- the idea that a committed attorney might not intentionally smuggle a gun, but that if he found himself looking at one in the visiting room, he would not take it away?
Bingham pauses very briefly. "I think, first of all, that it's -- knowing the kinds of things that I had been doing for the last four or five years -- we didn't get into detail about my work with tenants in Berkeley and things like that -- I think to any rational person it's inconceivable that somebody from the outside, because you're obviously implying it would be somebody on the outside who would do that, would ever entrust me to make that kind of right decision . . . I mean, everything I've done in my life has had a nonviolent premise to it. And it just defies imagination that I would become part of that."
If he had stayed -- if no charges had been filed, and his life had proceeded without major incident -- Bingham would have settled, he imagines now, among the community that has most publicly taken him in: attorneys, the "radical" label tamped down over the years, who still perceive their work as some steadily broadcast expression of their political views. There are teachers among them, and public agency lawyers, and lawyers who represent immigrants or labor unions or criminal defendants. "I can imagine things I would not be doing," he says. "I would not be in a corporate law firm, concerned with making as much money as I could."
Bingham has estimated that the legal fees and preparatory costs of his defense will total at least $500,000. His relatives were generous, but their own wealth has been exaggerated, he says; even if he is acquitted, he expects to face enormous debt. And there is now a certain pain, he says, in the spectacle of friends whose lives were never so massively disrupted, who have carpeted offices and annual political contribution lists and children in Saturday gymnastics classes.
"People own their houses," Bingham says. "They have these nice cars. I mean, I have this negative income of hundreds of dollars a day, and at age 43 am penniless. And will be for many years to come."
The smile is rueful now -- a slight shrug, as though he is still a little embarrassed to dwell on these matters. "My life has never been defined by acquiring lots of manifestations of wealth, and so forth," he says. "You know, some may say, 'That's easy for you, you grew up in a middle-class family' -- maybe all that's true. But in its own way, it is certainly difficult to go from having at least some sense of a building career and so forth, to the situation of having nothing at all."