After reaching a plea agreement with two men suspected in the killing of a San Francisco police officer nearly 40 years ago, prosecutors last week were forced to drop all charges against four other men accused in the murder — two of them residents of Altadena.

Due to insufficient evidence, homicide charges against Hank Jones, 70, and Ray Boudreaux, 66, both of Altadena, and Richard Brown, 65, and Harold Taylor, 58, were dropped on July 8.

The plea agreement came after Herman Bell, 59, and Jalil Muntaqim, 55 — both men already doing life terms in New York on unrelated murder convictions — agreed to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter in connection with the 1971 murder of San Francisco Police Sgt. John V. Young.

For almost four decades, detectives have claimed that Jones, Boudreaux, Brown, Taylor, Bell, and Muntaqim, along with Francisco Torres of New York and Bay Area resident Richard O’Neal — dubbed the San Francisco 8 — played roles in the shooting.

Young was killed on Aug. 29, 1971, when two men walked into the Ingleside District police station, placed a 12-gauge shotgun in an opening in the bulletproof glass and fired at least eight times, killing him and wounding a civilian clerk.

Police arrested six of the eight men — some are now retired grandfathers — on Jan. 24, 2007, in various parts of the country, including Altadena, where Jones and Boudreaux were picked up.

Conspiracy charges against O’Neal were dropped after San Francisco Superior Court Judge Philip J. Moscone in January 2008 ruled that the statute of limitations on those charges had long since expired, completely exonerating O’Neal, the only one of the eight not facing murder charges.

Only Torres, 58, continues to face charges in connection with Young’s death. Free on bond, Torres, a Puerto Rico-born Vietnam veteran who worked with troubled youth in New York before his 2007 arrest, is set to appear in a state court in San Francisco Aug. 10.

Prosecutors may think they have a stronger case against Torres, whose fingerprints, police say, were found on a lighter at the police station.

“This is finally the disposition of a case that should never have been brought in the first place,” said Soffiyah Elijah, defense attorney for the five whose charges were dropped.

Muntaqim and Bell, Elijah said, raised their fists into the air — much as Olympic athletes Tommy Smith and John Carlos did to protest racism in America when getting medals in  Mexico City in 1968 — as they stood in the packed courtroom in San Francisco and accepted the plea bargains.

The two were already serving life sentences in New York when they agreed to the deal, which has each man receiving what amounts to a time-served sentence — probation and credit for one year of jail time. Prosecutors will dismiss first-degree murder charges against them in the Young case.

After the deal was reached, prosecutors admitted they lacked enough evidence to convict four of the five remaining defendants. In statements released on their Web sites, Bell and Muntaqim said they accepted the offers as a tactical decision, after prosecutors successfully argued they not be allowed to attend parole hearings in New York while the Young case continued. If they had been convicted, the men could have been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in California; with this plea bargain they have a chance of release from the New York system.

“For me, removing the possibility of going to trial when a proposal (though unpalatable) is offered that would leave open a future chance at parole in another jurisdiction was something I could not pass up,” Bell wrote in his statement.

“While I would have liked to have continued the legal fight to what I believe would have resulted in complete exoneration of all charges, I know the jury system is fickle,” Muntaqim wrote. “I have seen too many innocent men in prison who fought with the conviction of being innocent after a reasonable plea bargain was offered, and they ultimately lost due to prosecutorial misconduct, defense attorney errors, improper jury instructions by a judge, and/or a fickle jury. Unfortunately, their loss results in spending decades in prison fighting for a reversal or waiting to be released on parole, or in the worst cases, death row DNA exonerations.”

Over the past few years, the case of the San Francisco 8 has captured international attention. Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu — along with several members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, actor Danny Glover and members of the San Francisco Labor Council — signed a resolution demanding that the men be freed.

Shortly after the 1971 shooting, Detectives Frank McCoy and Ed Erdelatz began investigating activist groups, including the Black Panthers, the Black Liberation Army and the Weathermen. The officers allegedly showed up in New Orleans in 1973 after Taylor was arrested there on an unrelated burglary complaint. While in custody, Taylor was beaten with blackjacks and shocked with cattle prods until he confessed to Young’s murder.

Two years later, San Francisco Judge Edward Cragen ruled that the confession was obtained illegally and charges against Taylor were dismissed.

Soon after Sept. 11, McCoy and Erdelatz signed up with the Department of Homeland Security and the murder case was reopened.
In 2005, Brown, Boudreaux, Taylor and Jones were jailed for about 10 weeks for contempt after refusing to cooperate with the San Francisco grand jury investigating the Young killing.

Members of the San Francisco 8 detailed their ongoing legal battles in the documentary “Legacy of Torture,” which premiered at the Pan African Film Festival in 2007.

“Something similar could happen to anyone, given the climate of fear, paranoia, and abuse of authority that is rampant in our country today,” Jones said.