Ominous ruling by Nebraska Supreme Court against Black Panther in COINTELPRO case puts new trial request in doubt
by Michael Richardson
The Nebraska Supreme Court denied a pro se parole bid by Ed Poindexter in a decision many expected was a foregone conclusion. However, in denying a request for parole eligibility the state high court signaled the difficulty Poindexter faces later this year when his request for a new trial is argued by Lincoln attorney Robert Bartle.
Poindexter was convicted in 1971 for the bombing murder of an Omaha policeman, Larry Minard, in a controversial trial marred by conflicting police testimony, withheld evidence, and tainted assistance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Poindexter and co-defendant Mondo we Langa (formerly David Rice) both deny any involvement in the crime and were both targets of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover under the infamous Operation COINTELPRO which targeted the Black Panthers for "no holds barred" treatment.
Poindexter's request for a new trial comes after sophisticated vocal analysis by voice analyst Tom Owen in 2006 revealed that the confessed bomber, 15 year-old Duane Peak, did not make the emergency call that lured Minard to his death. Peak implicated Poindexter and Mondo we Langa making his credibility critical…and leaving an unknown caller at large.
Retired Omaha detective Robert Pheffer also contradicted his own trial testimony about finding dynamite that was allegedly used in the fatal bomb in a dramatic and emotion-charged hearing in Douglas County District Court last year before Judge Russell Bowie.
At the time of the trial Omaha was gripped by racial tension. Former Nebraska governor Frank Morrison was Poindexter's court-appointed public defender. Morrison described Omaha in a 2003 deposition.
"There was tremendous racial feeling. North Omaha was one of the hottest spots in the whole United States for racial violence. In fact, when in 1966 we had to call out the National Guard, they set fire to North Omaha and we had to bring in the National Guard and take over to preserve order. There was terrible racial feeling….I don't have words to describe it, but there was terrible discrimination and hatred of African-Americans, terrible."
The "terrible racial feeling" Morrison described was fueled in part by COINTELPRO dirty tricks initiated by the FBI to disrupt the Black Panthers. Both Ed Pointdexter and Mondo we Langa had been secret targets of Hoover's clandestine operation but the compromised role of the FBI was unknown by Omaha police who were assisted by the federal agents in the search for Minard's killers and unknown by jurors who convicted Poindexter unaware of Hoover's secret directives against the Black Panthers.
The FBI, in cooperation with Omaha Assistant Chief of Police Glenn Gates, kept the recording of the emergency call from defense attorneys while the jurors who decided the fate of the two Black Panther leaders never heard the voice of the anonymous caller. A secret COINTELPRO memo obtained after the 1971 trial under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that release of the emergency tape recording would be "prejudicial to the police murder trial" case against Poindexter and Langa.
The jurors also never knew that Peak, the confessed bomber, brokered a deal where he served 33 months of juvenile detention and then walked free in exchange for his testimony against Poindexter and Langa. Nor did the jurors know that Raleigh House, the supplier of the dynamite, would never be formally charged and only spent one night in jail before being released on his own signature because the police wanted to claim Langa supplied the dynamite. In fact, Omaha Police Captain Murdock Platner did indeed make such a claim in sworn testimony to a Congressional committee contradicting actual trial testimony about the dynamite.
Details about the compromised FBI role in the case did not come until years after the trial and only judges, not jurors, have since been told about the withheld evidence, conflicting and contradictory police testimony, about the deal with Peak, and about the voice analysis that contradicts the story of the state's chief murderous witness against Poindexter.
The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that Poindexter's bid for parole must fail because the Board of Pardons has not commuted his life sentence to a term of years thus depriving the Board of Parole the ability to grant a parole request. In responding to Poindexter's arguments that numerous other prisoners serving life sentences have been released on parole after serving less time than he has the court said that a commutation of sentence was a "discretionary state privilege" and that even if "granted generously in the past" Poindexter had no legal entitlement to similar consideration.
While the expected ruling against parole for Poindexter does not presage the outcome of his pending new trial request some of the language in the decision does suggest that attorney Robert Bartle will have his work cut out for him during oral arguments scheduled for this fall.
In the ten-page decision there were three references to the underlying crime, the murder of Larry Minard. In the opening summary of the decision the Nebraska Supreme Court properly noted, "In 1971, a jury convicted Edward Poindexter of first degree murder."
However, two later references were less neutral and potentially betray a bias of the court to the prosecution case. The court discussed sentencing statutes, "in 1970 when Poindexter committed his offense." In the conclusion of the decision the court repeated the bias and used the statement "when Poindexter committed his crime" to describe the killing of Minard.
Nebraska newspapers, which have not reported on the COINTELPRO manipulation of the case against Poindexter, brandished headlines about Cop-Killer Poindexter Denied Parole following the language of the court decision.
Meanwhile, Ed Poindexter and Mondo we Langa remain imprisoned at the maximum security Nebraska State Penitentiary serving life sentences while three of Minard's killers, Duane Peak, the confessed bomber; Raleigh House, the supplier of the dynamite; and the unknown emergency line caller walk free.
Last week in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, federal Magistrate Christine Nolan recommended that Black Panther Albert Woodfox, serving a life sentence at Angola State Prison, should be granted a new trial. U.S. District Judge James Brady has yet to rule on Nolan's recommendation. The new trial recommendation followed a state court denial of a new trial request last month for co-defendant Herman Wallace. Wallace and Woodfox were held in solitary confinement for 36 years and only recently have been moved to regular maximum security cells. The two men, leaders in a prison chapter of the Black Panthers, were convicted for the murder of a prison guard during a riot at the prison in 1972 on the testimony of another prisoner released in exchange for testimony against the Panthers.
In Nebraska, a decision on Poindexter's request for a new trial is expected later this year.