Local View: Heart of justice is missing
By NAN GRAF
Sunday, Jun 28, 2009 - 11:55:28 pm CDT
A recent Nebraska Supreme Court decision denied former Omaha Black Panther leader Ed Poindexter the right to a new trial (June 19) and ignored violations of his rights that were often recorded in memos by longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and his agents or by Omaha Police Department reports. Of course, these recorded materials served as tips to investigate before Poindexter’s legal team handed over volumes of documentation to the court.
Poindexter’s arrest in August of 1970 for the suspected murder of an Omaha policeman, Officer Larry Minard Sr., and his short 1971 trial, along with fellow Panther leader Mondo we Langa (formerly David Rice), made front-page headlines in Omaha from the time of their arrest to their conviction. In fact, activists and journalists who have studied this ongoing injustice claim the two men were convicted by headline.
In April 1971, Poindexter and we Langa were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Now men in their 60s, they’re still at the Nebraska State Penitentiary, partly because they refuse to say they’re sorry for a crime they didn’t commit and thus don’t qualify for commutation or parole. They’ve always maintained their innocence, but learned early on that innocence isn’t enough.
Support of their cause to win justice has come from Amnesty International in the United States and in Europe. On April 18, 1999, Amnesty International at a General Meeting in Minneapolis passed a resolution calling for the immediate release of Ed Poindexter, Mondo we Langa and other political prisoners.
I’ve followed this case since 1970 and have researched and written articles about it since 1974. In the summer of 1981, I took an eight-week graduate seminar on human rights and discrimination in the political science department at the University of Iowa. My project for the summer was to study the topic of political prisoners in the United States.
For my 35-page seminary paper, I focused on three incarcerated black leaders known worldwide (if not here in Lincoln) as political prisoners: Ed Poindexter, Geronimo Pratt (of California) and Mondo we Langa. At the time, I had access to 350 pages of FBI COINTELPRO memos, released through the Freedom of Information Act, that demonstrated how FBI Director Hoover orchestrated urban police departments into action against blacks.
In a memo dated Aug. 26, 1967, Hoover urged FBI agents to “discredit” black leaders and their groups. Memos dated March 17, 1970, and Aug. 24, 1970, specifically targeted Poindexter and we Langa by way of discrediting and disinformation (Hoover’s coinage for plain old lying) in an effort to dismantle their leadership. In the 1990s, the British Broadcasting Company produced a documentary on Ed Poindexter, Geronimo Pratt and Mondo we Langa that is available on DVD.
When I, as a lay person (not a lawyer), first read the Nebraska Supreme Court’s 22-page printed response to Ed Poindexter’s October 2008 filing, it seemed to me a superficial treatment of serious issues that would result in preserving the status quo rather than correcting injustices.
I realize that both British and American law is built on precedent, that is, on cases that precede a current case. So there is limited opportunity for progressive thought or change. This partially explains why our legal culture took so long to grow away from the infamous 1857 Dred Scott case that essentially meant blacks have no rights whites need to respect. (Privileged racists in control of judicial and legislative branches explain the rest of what happened.)
With this recent Nebraska ruling, it’s as if the court cast blind eyes upon the failures of Poindexter’s early defense attorneys and upon the misconduct of prosecuting attorneys. In addition, the court abandoned consideration of injustices against Poindexter inherent in the FBI’s 911 memo (dated Oct. 13, 1970). Omaha’s Assistant Chief of Police, Glenn Gates, in this memo advises withholding evidence until after Poindexter’s April 1971 trial, evidence the police figured might help the defendant. The 911 memo offers all kinds of possibilities to explore, both subtle and overt.
Credibility of the state’s witness? It mattered not. Lying under oath? Conflicting testimonies? These moral questions fester like open wounds.
The court’s recurrent refrain of agreement with shallow district court opinions predictably leads into this conclusion on the last page of the printed text: “We affirm the judgment of the district court denying Poindexter’s motion for postconviction relief.”
What I brought back home with me to Lincoln after the 1981 seminar on human rights and discrimination at the University of Iowa is that political prisoners seldom get justice in their own backyards. Nearly every nation in the world incarcerates political prisoners. It’s a universal problem that could be solved, though, by courts throughout the world.
It is especially disappointing that only the veneer of justice and not the heart of it emerges now from the Nebraska Supreme Court.
Nan Graf is a retired professor living in Lincoln.