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Judge asked by ACLU to consider COINTELPRO frame-up of two Black Panthers in 1970 murder

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The Nebraska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has filed an amicus brief in the case of Ed Poindexter in support of his request for a new trial.  Poindexter and Mondo we Langa, formerly David Rice, have been behind bars since 1970 following the bombing murder of an Omaha police officer.  The two, serving life sentences, were the leaders of Omaha's Black Panther group, the National Committee to Combat Fascism. 

At the time of the bombing COINTELPRO was unknown to the American public.  A secret operation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, COINTELPRO did not come to light until a break-in at the Media, Pennsylvania FBI office the following year.  Director J. Edgar Hoover had ordered the secret program to target and disrupt domestic political groups he considered radical.  The Black Panthers were a prime target across the country for ambitious FBI agents bent on sabotaging the growing black power movement.

 

As a result of suppressed evidence, the emergency hotline recording that lured police to a vacant house bobby-trapped with a suitcase bomb, Poindexter recently gained a hearing before Douglas County District Judge Russell Bowie to consider his request for a new trial.  After several days of emotional testimony and conflicting police accounts, Judge Bowie is now reviewing the trial transcript before rendering a decision on Poindexter's request.

 

The Nebraska ACLU has given the court some additional reading material in its brief outlining the role of COINTELPRO in the prosecution of Poindexter and Langa and other cases brought against Black Panthers.

 

"ACLU Nebraska submits this amicus brief to describe the workings of COINTELPRO because it is clear Edward Poindexter was targeted by the FBI, thus raising questions about whether his conviction was part of the FBI's illegal efforts to neutralize political activists.  While COINTELPRO was operating, leaders of several targeted groups were arrested and convicted of serious crimes.  As described in this brief, we now know that in some of those convictions, the activists were innocent and have been freed after habeas corpus proceedings revealed exculpatory evidence was deliberately withheld by law enforcement agencies.  The Poindexter case draws parallels to the patterns in other COINTELPRO cases."

 

Citing the U.S. Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with respect to Intelligence Activities, also known as the Church Committee, the ACLU brief reviews the history of COINTELPRO.  "There is no question that COINTELPRO was one of the worst abuses of law enforcement power in American history."

 

The ACLU draws Judge Bowie's attention to the case of Harllel Jones, a Black Nationalist, who had been convicted of murder in Ohio on testimony procured by leniency for his criminal accuser and the withholding of exculpatory evidence.  Jones was a COINTELPRO target who has since been released when details of the COINTELPRO tactics where uncovered.

 

The case of Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt, a Black Panther, is also cited.  Pratt was convicted of murder on the testimony of a single witness, a felon who received leniency for his testimony against Pratt.  Pratt's accuser, Julius Butler, was a FBI informant but this information was withheld from the defense.  Pratt, also a COINTELPRO target, was finally released by a California appellate court because of the lack of credibility of Pratt's accuser.

 

The New York case of Black Panther leader Dhoruba bin Wahad, formerly Richard Moore, is also cited.  Wahad spent 20 years in prison on falsified evidence for attempted murder of two police officers.  "The evidence against him was based on an FBI informant who lied under oath."

 

"Each of these cases offer a similar pattern with elements that fit the COINTELPRO mold.  In each case, the defendant was charged with a murder, based on the testimony of an FBI informant.  The informant was either expressly under a leniency deal or there is evidence of such a deal.  Exculpatory evidence was withheld in each instance.  This pattern appears to be symptomatic of COINTELPRO-era prosecutions of Black Nationalist leaders."

 

"It is clearly established that Edward Poindexter and the Omaha chapter…was targeted by COINTELPRO prior to the events of August, 1970.  The FBI already had a file on Poindexter, containing references to his political activities."

 

"ACLU Nebraska cannot assert definitively that Poindexter is innocent or that he was framed as part of a COINTELPRO operation.  What we can and do assert is that the facts in this case bear too close a resemblance to the illegal activities that resulted in wrongful convictions of other black activists.  We urge this court to bear these historical facts in mind while weighing the evidence in this case, particularly in regard to the plausibility of the government's evidence."

 

Judge Bowie will have plenty to ponder about the plausibility of the government's evidence.  Vocal analyst Tom Owens has testified the voice on the emergency hotline call is not that of Duane Peak, the 15 year-old accuser of Poindexter and Langa, raising a credibility question about Peak's trial testimony.  Further, Peak obtained leniency in exchange for his testimony and was sentenced as a juvenile despite his admission as the bomber.

 

Omaha detective Jack Swanson was the Intelligence Division liaison with the FBI and at trial testified he found dynamite in Langa's basement.  That official version was openly contradicted before Judge Bowie by another detective, Robert Pheffer, who now claims he found the dynamite not Swanson.  However, the first time the explosives turn up in a police evidence photo is in the trunk of a squad car and not in Langa's house at all.

 

The COINTELPRO program was cancelled when it was discovered and denounced by the Church Committee and members of the federal judiciary.  After the notoriety of Hoover's illegal operation against the Black Panthers and other groups it faded from public attention as the years went by.  However, for two men, Ed Poindexter and Mondo we Langa, COINTELPRO is not merely a historical memory but instead is a bitter reality while they wait in the Nebraska State Penitentiary for Judge Bowie's decision.

 

Michael Richardson is a freelance writer based in Boston. Richardson writes about politics, law, nutrition, ethics, and music. Richardson is also a political consultant.

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