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The San Quentin Six were a group of six inmates at San Quentin State Prison in California (Hugo Pinell, Willie Tate, Johnny Larry Spain, David Johnson, Fleeta Drumgo and Luis Talamantez) who were accused of participating in an August 21, 1971 escape attempt that left six people dead, including George Jackson, founder of the Black Guerrilla Family prison gang. Costing California taxpayers more than $2 million, their 16-month trial was the longest in the state's history at the time and was dubbed "The Longest Trial" by Time magazine. Of the six defendants, one was convicted of murder, two were convicted of assault on prison guards, and three were acquitted of all charges.
During the escape which sparked a riot on the cellblock, Jackson had a 9 mm automatic pistol, allegedly smuggled into the prison by attorney Stephen Bingham (immediately after the incident, Bingham went on the run and fled the country for 13 years; he returned in 1984 to stand trial, and was acquitted of all charges in 1986). During the riot, caused by Jackson and two dozen other prisoners, three corrections officers and two inmates were tortured and killed.
In addition to Jackson, those killed in the altercation were guards Paul E. Krasenes, 52, Frank DeLeon, 44, and Jere P. Graham, 39, as well as inmates John Lynn, 29, and Ronald L. Kane, 28. Spain was found guilty in the shooting deaths of guards DeLeon and Graham, Pinell was convicted of cutting the throats of guards Charles Breckenridge and Urbano Rubiaco, Jr, and Johnson was convicted of assaulting Breckenridge. There were no convictions for the killings of Krasenes, Lynn, or Kane. Cleared of all charges, Drumgo, Talamantaz, and Tate were found not guilty on various counts of murder, conspiracy, and assault.
Prison officials stated that attorney Stephen Bingham and a female assistant arrived at San Quentin for a meeting with George Jackson at around 2:00 pm. The female handed a briefcase to Bingham after she was not permitted to enter the visiting room.
According to an Associated Press report based on interviews with prison officials, a cursory search of Bingham's briefcase was performed and a guard failed to open a tape recorder case that was in it. This report stated that the briefcase was returned to Bingham after he walked through a metal detector. An article in the San Francisco Chronicle based on the reports of officials provided a slightly different version by stating that Bingham had triggered the metal detector while carrying the briefcase through it. That report indicated that an officer opened the briefcase and found a cassette tape recorder, then inspected its battery compartment to determine if it was functional. Prison officials believed that the working components of the recorder had been removed to allow room for an automatic handgun with its grip handles removed. Initial reports described the weapon as a 9 mm pistol made by the Spanish manufacturer Llama firearms.
Jackson was strip searched in San Quentin's Adjustment Center then escorted to the visiting room. He sat across from Bingham at a wooden table that had no barriers between the two, and was intermittently observed watched by guards. Officials speculated that during this time Bingham passed the gun to Jackson who concealed it in his hair under a watch cap. The meeting lasted about 15 minutes. Around 2:35 pm, Jackson was escorted back to the Adjustment Center by officer Frank DeLeon where another office performed a second search prior to returning Jackson to his cell. When that officer asked Jackson about what appeared to be a pencil in his hair, Jackson pulled the gun from his, pointed it at the officers, then engaged an ammunition clip in it. He reportedly shouted, "This is it!", and ordered all of the officers to lay face down on the floor. Jackson then ordered an officer to get up and activate a switch that opened all 34 cells on the first floor. According to the Chronicle, officer Charles Breckenridge's throat was slashed and was dragged to Jackson's cell. On top of him were thrown the bodies of officers DeLeon and Paul Krasenes, as well as those of two white inmates. Sergeant Jere Graham was killed by inmates when he came to the Adjustment Center to pick up DeLeon for another assignment. An alarm was eventually sounded and Jackson and Johnny Spain ran from the Adjustment Center. Initial reports indicated that at approximately 2:55 pm, Jackson was struck once in the foot and one in the top of the head as he attempted to flee.
During the trial, Tate was freed on $50,000 bail.
Defense attorneys presented a conspiracy theory suggesting that prison and law enforcement officials set-up Jackson to be killed. The prosecution asserted that the escape attempt was a conspiracy that involved radicals sympathetic to Jackson.
After deliberating for 24 days, the Marin County jury of five men and seven women rendered their verdicts for 46 separate felony counts on August 12, 1976. Marin County Superior Court Judge Henry J. Broderick spent 45 minutes reading the verdicts. The trial ended as the longest in California history, during which 23,000 pages of testimony were collected.
Fleeta Drumgo was born in 1945 to Inez Williams in Shreveport, Louisiana. According to the Daily Review in Hayward, California, Drumgo moved to Los Angeles at the age of 3, and had been in and out of juvenile detention homes since the age of 13. According to Fania Davis Jordan, the sister of Angela Davis, he moved to Los Angeles at the age of 14, was placed in the Preston School of Industry and upon his release was sentenced to the Deuel Vocational Institution near Tracy, California after an arrest for attempted murder.
Drumgo was later charged with the December 1966 burglary of a television and radio store in the Los Angeles suburb of South Gate. According to court documents, Drumgo initially admitted his involvement in the break-in after he was found by officers at the address for which the getaway car used by his accomplice was registered. In early 1967, he was convicted of first degree burglary after waiving a jury trial. He was referred to the California Youth Authority but was found to be "not capable of reformation under their discipline". In September 1967, the court, pursuant to California Penal Code, reduced the previous conviction to secondary burglary and sentenced Drumgo to six months to 15 years in state prison.
Drumgo was one of the Soledad Brothers. Twice charged and acquitted for the murder of prison guards, Drumgo was released from prison in August 1976 after serving nine years for the burglary charge.
Drumgo was shot to death in Oakland on November 26, 1979. According to Oakland police, Drumgo had been shot by more than one weapon and witnesses reported two men leaving the scene, one with a shotgun and one with a handgun. His killer was never caught.
David Johnson (born circa 1947) was from San Diego, California. Johnson was serving a sentence for burglary of five years to life at the time of the escape attempt. In 1985, he was reported to be a student at San Francisco State University.
During the trial after the escape attempt at San Quentin, guard Charles Breckenridge testified that Johnson had attempted to strangle him. On August 12, 1976, Johnson was convicted on one count of assault.
Hugo Pinell was born March 10, 1945 in Nicaragua. In 1965, Pinell was convicted of rape in San Francisco, sentenced to life imprisonment, and placed in San Quentin State Prison. In 1968, he was convicted of attacking a guard and transferred to Folsom State Prison. In June 1970, he was convicted of a similar assault then transferred to the California Correctional Center in Soledad, California. At Soledad, he was awaiting trial on charges of attacking another guard in December 1970. On March 3, 1971, Pinell stabbed Soledad correctional officer Robert J. McCarthey after luring him to his cell under the guise of needing a letter mailed. McCarthey died in Fort Ord Army Hospital two days later.
By the time of the trial for the uprising at San Quentin, Pinell was serving a life sentence for rape as well as three others for offenses committed while in prison. Pinell was reported by a San Quentin spokesman to have been subdued by guards after he stabbed his defense attorney, Lynn Carman, during a conference at the prison on March 26, 1975. Carman said he had not been stabbed or wounded, and he denied additional comment on the matter. One witness to the incident reported that Carman was left bleeding from the mouth. During the trial, San Quentin guards Charles Breckenridge and Urbano Rubiaco, Jr. testified that Pinell had cut their throats. On August 12, 1976, Pinell was convicted of two counts of felony assault by a prisoner serving a sentence for life imprisonment. In 1985, he was serving his sentence in Folsom Prison. In January 2009, Pinell lost his ninth bid for parole in front of officials at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, California, extending his prison term by another 15 years.
Johnny Larry Spain was born July 30, 1949 in Jackson, Mississippi to a black father, Arthur Cummings, and a white mother, Ann Armstrong. The child of an extra-marital affair, he was named Larry Michael Armstrong, taking the last name of his mother's husband, Fred Armstrong, a beer truck driver. During a delivery to a nightclub and restaurant in Utica, Mississippi, Fred Armstrong asked the black owner if she would take in the six-year-old boy. The woman said she could not, but contacted her husband's cousin in California who agreed to do so. At the age of six, Spain was adopted by Johnny and Helen Spain in Los Angeles where he was renamed as Johnny Larry Spain.
At the time of the escape attempt at San Quentin, Spain was serving a life sentence for murder. On August 12, 1976, Spain was convicted of two counts of first degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder in the deaths of guards Frank DeLeon and Jere P. Graham. The only one of the Six convicted of murder, he had his conviction overturned according to the Los Angeles Times in an article that appeared on July 1, 1982, by federal judge Thelton Henderson, who has also placed Pelican Bay State Prison under federal receivership.
Luis Talamantez was born circa 1943. In February 1966, he was convicted of armed robbery in Los Angeles. After his acquittal, Talamantez was paroled from prison on August 20, 1976, then was taken to a party at the Marin County home of Robert Carrow, his primary defense attorney.
In 1985, Talamantez was reported to be "living in the south".
Luis Talamantez along with Willie Tate and David Johnson participated in a July 15, 2011 Bay area memorial for Geronimo JI-Jaga, the Defense Captain for the LA Black Panther Party (1969-1972). Talamantez continues to be an activist and often participates on cable access programs bringing attention to the current conditions in the US prison system.
Willie Tate was born circa 1944 or 1945 in Selma, Alabama where he lived until he was six-years-old. His father was a sergeant in the United States Army. The family moved to El Paso, Texas, however, Tate could not attend school as there was no kindergarten or first grade for black children. The family moved to California and settled in Fresno when he was about eight-years-old. Tate was first arrested at the age of 14.
In 1985, Tate was reported to be a "fugitive on a Fresno drug warrant".
Willie Tate has been a bay area activist supporting many human right causes and serving the needs of his communities since his release in the 1970s. Recently, Willie Tate participated in a July 15, 2011 memorial for his friend and fellow San Quinton Inmate the late Geronimo Ji-Jaga. Geronimo a Black Panther Leader was wrongly accused in 1972 by the FBI and LAPD of committing a murder in 1968. His case was overturned by a US District Court of Appeals in 1997. The LAPD and FBI were forced to acknowledge misconduct and pay Geronimo Ji-Jaga $4.5 million for wrongful incarceration.
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