1971 case involving ill-fated prison break left mark


Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

Somewhat by chance, I have crossed paths with an attorney who played a key role in one of the most riveting and lengthy criminal cases in the history of California, a legal drama that began to unfold on August 21, 1971 when Black Panther leader George Jackson and five others – including three prison guards – were killed at San Quentin State Prison during an aborted breakout attempt.

It was a case that drew national attention and came at a time when fraught race relations in the U.S. were exacerbated by the country’s prolonged involvement in the Vietnam War, where a disproportionate number of American casualties were men of color.

Attorney Matt Menzer’s involvement in the case began in the summer of 1984, some 13 years after the failed prison escape that left six people dead. As a second-year law student at the University of California-Berkeley, Menzer was recruited to assist the defense team for Jackson’s lawyer, Stephen Bingham, who coincidentally was a Cal-Berkely law alum.

Bingham had been a fugitive for more than a decade after being charged with multiple murder counts for allegedly supplying a gun to Jackson during a prison visit that fateful day in 1971.

“Bingham had been on the run for years after being charged with murder in the case,” Menzer indicated. “His reason for fleeing was his belief that he was being framed and that he wouldn’t be able to receive a fair trial given the political climate at the time. He always proclaimed his innocence and maintained that he had no role in smuggling the gun to Jackson.” 

Bingham was accused of hiding a 9-millimeter pistol in a tape recorder and smuggling it to Jackson, who was awaiting trial in the killing of a prison guard in 1970.

According to published reports, Bingham was a “self-described political radical” who was at the prison that day to discuss a civil lawsuit Jackson had filed against the California Department of Corrections. While he was on the run in Europe, Bingham reportedly got married and worked as a house painter before surrendering to authorities in July 1984.

Bingham was a Yale University grad with a famous pedigree. His grandfather, Hiram Bingham, was an archeologist who helped discover the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru and later served as the governor of Connecticut. 

“He had a very interesting background and was being helped by (former U.S. Attorney General) Ramsey Clark,” Menzer said of Bingham. “I initially was a volunteer on his case, providing legal research assistance and doing various ‘go-fer’ duties to help out. Gradually my role increased as I spent the better part of two years working with his defense team, including a year off from law school.”

Officials at the law school initially were reluctant to give Menzer time away from his studies, but softened their stance after his presence on the Bingham defense team grew in scope.

“All in all, it was an incredible experience to be involved in a case of that magnitude and to work alongside some very talented attorneys, including Leonard Weinglass, who was one of the lead lawyers in the Chicago Seven trial,” said Menzer, who noted that the defense team at trial was led by prominent Bay Area lawyer Gerry Schwartzbach.

Weinglass, whose long list of legal credits included involvement in the Pentagon Papers and Patty Hearst cases, eventually had to bow out of the Bingham case due to the press of other trial responsibilities, leaving Menzer with added work of his own.

“When he left the defense team, I ended up with all the case files in my studio apartment in Berkeley,” Menzer said somewhat incredulously. “By that time, I probably knew what was in the case files better than anyone. The preliminary hearing in the case took four months and was the longest in California history at the time.”

Bingham eventually was acquitted of all charges in June 1986, including of conspiring with Jackson and other inmates in the escape plan, according to Menzer. The jury took six days to reach the verdict following a 10-week trial.

“It was a case that contained strong evidence of misconduct by the prison administration and law enforcement authorities who were allegedly trying to control a growing movement to protect the rights of black inmates in the California prison system,” Menzer said.

One thing that seemed certain after the case concluded, however, was that Menzer’s legal star was rising, even if he thought differently at the time.

Said Menzer: “I liked to joke back then that my legal career had already peaked, but today I know better. The Bingham case was just the beginning of a really rewarding practice – one filled with more great colleagues and exceptional clients that I’ve had the privilege of representing.” 

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