“Larry Layton and Peoples Temple: Twenty-Five Years Later” by Frank Bell
Frank Bell is an attorney who practices in Northern California. His address is 303 Bradford Street, Suite C, Redwood City, CA 94063-1529.
I have lived with the case of Larry Layton and his experiences as a member of Peoples Temple, especially on that fateful day in November 1978, when so many lost their lives, including Northern California Congressman Leo J. Ryan.
Larry Layton was the only person prosecuted for any of the events in and around Jonestown. I was one of Larry’s lead lawyers in his first U.S. trial in 1981, which resulted in an 11 to 1 vote for acquittal on faulty charges of conspiracy to kill the congressman. I consulted with the defense during the government’s appeal before the second U.S. trial, but I could not participate in that 1986 trial, because I was serving as California’s State Public Defender.
Nevertheless, I followed the trial very carefully from my offices just three blocks from the San Francisco federal courthouse. I was surprised by the government’s clever – and, in my opinion, nefarious – change of the theory of the case. I was disappointed when Robert Peckham, the very experienced and universally respected federal judge who had also presided over the first trial, felt compelled by the Courts of Appeals to allow the introduction of highly inflammatory evidence which he had barred from the earlier trial. I was shocked and saddened when the second jury found Larry guilty.
After Larry’s sentencing I was involved in the initial parole hearings in 1991 to attempt to win his release, during which the parole authorities ignored an appeal by Judge Peckham for his release. I was also involved in a campaign asking President Clinton to invoke his clemency powers and release Larry during Clinton’s final days in the White House. I also joined in Larry’s final parole petition in 2001, although everyone involved in that campaign understands it was the testimony of Vern Gosney, one of Larry’s victims and now a Hawaiian police officer, who flew from the Islands just days after September 11 to appear on Larry’s behalf, that finally won his freedom. Larry was released from custody in April 2002, after 18 long years in prison.
What I want people to know is that Larry was not guilty of the charges against him. He did not conspire to kill, or attempt to kill, Congressman Ryan or Richard Dwyer, the Chief of Mission, as the charges claimed. His conviction was a miscarriage of justice. I was certain of this at the time, and I remain certain of this now.
This is not to say Larry was blameless. He did some things that were wrong and that cannot be totally excused, even by his mental and emotional fatigue, or the brainwashing, or his mental status at the time. He admittedly posed as a defector and was determined to send a message to others in the Temple and elsewhere, and to prove his loyalty to Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, by shooting the pilot of a small place taking other defectors out of Guyana at the end of Ryan’s visit. His was to be a suicide mission in which the plane would take all of its occupants to their deaths. Yet Larry knew nothing of the plot, which was hatched by Jones and others at the same time, to kill Ryan and others at the airport where they were gathered to leave. When the small plane failed to take off at the airfield, Larry shot people in the plane before he was disarmed.
Following his arrest and his 18-month detention in a Georgetown jail, Larry was tried in Guyana on charges of attempted murder. He was acquitted. But his troubles were just beginning. Larry was released from Guyana into the custody of U.S. marshals, who escorted him to San Francisco. Again, Larry was held in jail while he awaited trial.
The government theory during the first U.S. trial in the U.S. was that Larry knew of the plot to kill Ryan and that he was involved in it. That attempt failed almost completely, as only one of the 12 jurors agreed with it; yet that lone vote for conviction resulting in a mistrial allowed the government a second chance to try Larry. With its initial strategy in shambles, the government floated a second theory. It argued that there was an overarching conspiracy in the works at Jonestown, a conspiracy that was designed keep the world from knowing about the conditions at the compound. Since Larry tried to effect that conspiracy by attempting to kill people at the airstrip, according to the theory, he was part of that conspiracy, as were the persons who actually killed Ryan. Since they were all part of the same conspiracy, the government concluded, they were all equally guilty for the acts of the other members of the conspiracy. It was this theory – which is so legally and factually attenuated as to be almost vapor and unworthy of support – upon which the “guilt” of Larry Layton was based.
It is unfortunate, but most defense lawyers understand (and most prosecutors would secretly admit) that when the system wants to hold someone accountable for some action, the system will stretch to the limit, and perhaps beyond, to make it happen. In my opinion, this is what happened to Larry Layton. The system wanted to hold someone accountable. The system decided it should be Larry Layton, because everyone else who could have been held accountable was dead. This is why Larry was wrongfully convicted. This is why Larry was wrongfully imprisoned. This is why Larry was denied justice.
For most of this battle over the years, very few persons beyond Larry’s family, his legal team, and Loren Buddress – Larry’s former U.S. Probation Officer, then Chief U.S. Probation Officer and now Chief of Probation for San Mateo County – seemed to care. Sure, jurors in his second trial had written to the judge asking for leniency and saying that while they found Larry “technically” guilty, they did not believe he should be severely punished. Five years later, Judge Peckham himself wrote letters to the parole authorities asking for Larry’s release; he died before he could see those efforts through. Others wrote letters on Larry’s behalf as well, but they were also ignored.
Finally, ten years later, Vern Gosney, one of the people Larry hurt – whom Larry had actually shot and wounded – had seen enough. He knew that, but for certain fortuitous circumstances, it could have been him and not Larry in that terrible position. He stepped forward to help. His courageous parole hearing testimony single-handedly turned the tide in Larry’s favor.
Larry had been a perfect inmate. Never in my career have I represented, or even heard of, an inmate in a federal or state prison who had served such a sentence without a single “write up” or disciplinary action against him. Instead of acting up or thinking only of himself, Larry had spent his time trying to better himself with study and meditation and helping others at the institutions at which he had been incarcerated. Finally, he had been freed after years of false imprisonment.
As a lawyer, it seemed at times like a long road and one which may
never have a favorable end. Years before I had chosen the criminal
law because the cases were short and seldom extended over more than
a few months, or occasionally a year or so. I was privileged to be
involved in this case for as long as it took to get a just result.
It is said that “justice delayed is justice denied.” I
suggest: “An injustice undone is justice finally done.”