Cult Observer Archives

The Cult Observer

January/February 1987

Layton Trial Raised Questions of Conspiracy, Mind Control

From the San Jose Mercury News, November 20, 1986, p. 2C, November 22, 1986, p. 13B, and December 2, 1986, p. 14A

On the eighth anniversary of the massacre at Jonestown, in a federal courtroom in San Francisco, twelve jurors were asked to decide whether former Peoples Temple member Larry Layton was part of a conspiracy to murder California Rep. Leo Ryan, or just another victim of Jonestown.

Layton was convicted Dec. 1 of conspiring and aiding and abetting in the Nov. 18, 1978, murder of Ryan and the attempted murder of Richard Dwyer, a US diplomat wounded in the attack at the Guyana airstrip.

Layton’s attorney, Tony Tamburello, who described the prosecution case as "guilt by proximity," portrayed Layton as a deluded follower of the Rev. Jim Jones who was unconnected to the temple leadership.

"Mr. Layton is not a man of violence," Tamburello said in his closing argument to the jury. "November 18 … was unique, bizarre, crazy."


Tamburello said he understood the feeling that someone should pay for the murder of Ryan and the ensuing mass deaths, but insisted that "Larry Layton is not responsible for those deaths," and urged the jurors to "deny yourself vengeance for the sale of reason."

But U. S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello said Layton should be held responsible because his shootings of two fleeing temple members were part of the same conspiracy.

"This was an attempt to murder everyone" leaving Jonestown, Russoniello said. "If the truth got out about Jonestown, it was sunk."

"The man was a killer" who took part in the plot "because he was a believer," Russoniello said of Layton.

At one point in its deliberations, the jury asked Chief U.S. District Judge Robert Peckham if the conspiracy charge required Layton to have had "direct knowledge that the object of the conspiracy was the murder of Ryan." Judge Peckham reread a portion of his previous instructions, saying a conspirator need not be aware of all details of the conspiracy, but that Layton must be proved to have joined the plot, knowing that one purpose was the killing of Ryan or Dwyer.

Layton, 40, a onetime Quaker and pacifist, joined the People’s Temple in 1968. His sister, Debbie, and their mother also were Temple Followers.

He was called to Jonestown from California in May 1978, after Debbie left the compound and Jones feared she would discredit his efforts. That summer Layton’s mother died of cancer in Jonestown, and defense attorneys said he became caught up in the web of fear Jones built around his followers.

Layton, saying he too wanted to flee Jonestown, convinced Ryan’s aides to take him with the congressman’s party as it was leaving. He later admitted shooting and wounding tow defectors aboard a small plane, and signed a confession taking responsibility for all the deaths at the Guyana airstrip. Jury foreman Ronald Iskow said Layton’s insistence on boarding the plane before the attack and the fact that he posed as a defector were among the considerations that led jurors to believe he was guilty.

Layton’s attorneys said they would appeal his conviction.

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