Stephen Bingham '64 interviewed by Marin Magazine
Many say that in Marin, turn over a rock and you’ll find someone interesting.
Voilà! Here’s Stephen Bingham. His grandfather was Hiram Bingham III, who was born in Hawaii in 1875, married a member of the Tiffany family, discovered the forgotten Incan city of Machu Picchu, and served as Connecticut’s governor, then its U.S. senator.
Grandson Stephen Bingham, now 71, lives in San Rafael with wife Françoise Blusseau, whom he met in Paris. After graduating with honors from Yale University (a family tradition), Bingham spent two months in the Mississippi Freedom Summer civil-rights project. He then came west to study law at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall and, in 1965, interrupted his studies to serve two years with the Peace Corps in West Africa. On returning, he resumed his studies, passed the bar, marched with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, and volunteered to work with Robert Kennedy’s ill-fated presidential campaign. In the hostile environment of late 1960s Berkeley, Bingham settled into the mundane practice of civil law. Or so he thought.
It was in 1971 that he innocently went to deliver research materials to prisoner George Jackson, who was in San Quentin writing a book while awaiting trial as one of three “Soledad Brothers” accused of killing a Soledad State Prison guard. And it was then — for both Jackson and Bingham — that things went horribly wrong.
Please take us through what happened at San Quentin State Prison and later in Berkeley, during the afternoon and evening of August 21, 1971.
I’d never been inside San Quentin until visiting George Jackson a few times in the spring of 1971 to discuss filing a civil-rights lawsuit regarding his and others’ prison conditions. On August 21, I went there to ensure that an investigator on George’s criminal-defense team, Vanita Anderson, was able to get in to see George. It would be her second visit of the week, prohibited under new visiting rules, and it was feared the guards might deny her visit. They did just that, so I agreed to carry in for his review galleys of his new book. At the suggestion of a guard, I also took in a tape recorder of Anderson’s that had been thoroughly examined by the guards at the prison’s front gate. They took the tape recorder apart to make sure nothing was inside it.
After a long wait, I met with George; we had a brief talk, I gave him the materials and left with them after he had finished his review. I was late for lunch at my uncle’s; he was a professor at Berkeley. At the time, I was single and riding a small motorcycle so, after the lunch, I stopped at my house briefly and then went to a meeting that lasted until 10 that night.
Meanwhile, I had no idea of the horror that had happened inside San Quentin’s Adjustment Center. Some time after I left, George Jackson allegedly used a 9 mm Astra pistol to take a guard hostage and, in the shootout that followed, six men — three guards and three prisoners, including Jackson — were killed. But I knew nothing about it until I got home from the meeting and found maybe 30 people on my front porch. They’d learned about the hostage-taking on the news, and that I was suspected of smuggling in the gun.
Please describe how you went about fleeing the country.
I stayed with friends in Berkeley for two days, hoping the authorities would announce a genuine investigation, but that didn’t happen. They simply concluded the first night that I must have been responsible since I was the last person from the outside to visit him. My lawyer friends became adamant that I leave the country because my life would clearly be in danger if I was jailed and under control of law enforcement who had lost three officers on August 21. So, my friends obtained for me a new driver’s license and a birth certificate under the name Robert Boarts. It’s likely the ID was obtained from one of the anti-Vietnam War groups helping draft evaders get new identities so they could flee to Canada. I also shaved off my beard and mustache, dyed and straightened my hair and started wearing glasses with plain glass lenses.
Unidentified friends gave me perhaps $2,000 and I flew from Las Vegas to Philadelphia, where I got a passport. Of course, I was very tense. Later, I discovered that a grand jury had indicted me for two counts of murder and one count of conspiracy and that I faced the possibility of life in prison. It wasn’t until after my return years later when I reviewed my FBI file that I concluded that the police and FBI were not making a determined effort to find me. I’m now convinced they knew I didn’t do what I was accused of.
I then flew to Prague, Czechoslovakia, and spent two years in Eastern Europe, where I felt safer because none of the Eastern bloc countries were members of Interpol, the international police organization. I also visited Hungary and Yugoslavia.
How did you get to Paris, meet Françoise, and return to the U.S. to face trial?
I received letters from friends saying it was not safe to return, so in ’74 I went to Paris. I thought it was a big city, easy to get lost in, and a place where I could attend school. I enrolled in film and photography classes, and that’s where I met Françoise. We stayed in Paris for 10 years — with three incognito trips back to see my family and friends in America — before I thought it would be safe to return on a permanent basis.
Leonard Weinglass, who’d successfully defended the Chicago Seven, Angela Davis, and Daniel Ellsberg, and San Francisco attorney Paul Harris were my lawyers for the surrender and preliminary hearing, but Len had a scheduling conflict so I had to live undercover in San Jose for six months. Then, with help from former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, I surrendered and a trial for smuggling the 9 mm pistol and a wig to George Jackson was held in Marin County Superior Court in 1986.
Gerald Schwartzbach and Susan Rutberg were my trial attorneys; the trial took three months and I was found not guilty of conspiracy and murder on the jury’s first ballot. Later, several jurors told me they could have found me “totally innocent,” not just “not guilty.” A strange thing is, they never did find out how George Jackson got the gun.
After that, what happened in your life?
Up until a few months ago, I’ve been working in San Francisco with Bay Area Legal Aid. I specialized in welfare law, making sure those who are entitled to benefits such as general assistance indeed get it. I also directed the Legal Barriers to Employment Project, which helps welfare recipients get, and keep, a job. All of it was challenging work; I remain in awe of families that can survive on under $500 a month.
Are you comfortable discussing the tragedy that befell you and Françoise in 2009, and its aftermath?
Yes. Though it still saddens us both, time has slowly lessened the pain. In 2009, our daughter Sylvia, who was 22 and had just graduated from Yale with honors, was in Cleveland, Ohio, working as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer. She had started work with Hard Hatted Women, a nonprofit that helps women work their way out of poverty, and was struck by a truck while bicycling to work. The driver was convicted of felony aggravated vehicular homicide and served time in prison, and his driver’s license was revoked for life. Several months later, a civil settlement was reached without us having to go to court.
Françoise and I set up the Sylvia Bingham Fund a few months after Sylvia’s death. It distributes money to small causes we believe Sylvia would have embraced. These include bicycle safety, food banks, and groups that encourage hiring low-income women. Locally, we feel, Sylvia would have appreciated the work of Enriching Lives through Music in San Rafael, so we made a small grant to them.