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Conflicting dynamite testimony by police detailed to Nebraska Supreme Court raises doubt in 1971 Black Panther case

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Black Panther leaders Ed Poindexter and Mondo we Langa, formerly David Rice, are serving life sentences for the 1970 bombing murder of Omaha police officer Larry Minard.  Targets of the secret COINTELPRO operation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation against the Black Panthers, Poindexter and Langa were already under close surveillance when they were arrested along with a dozen others during the murder investigation. 

Eventually charges would be dropped against all but 15 year-old Duane Peak, the confessed bomber, and the two Panther leaders who ran the Omaha chapter then called the National Committee to Combat Fascism.  Peak struck a deal with prosecutors and implicated Poindexter and Langa in exchange for sentencing as a juvenile which allowed him to walk free in 1974.

 

Two Omaha detectives, Jack Swanson and Robert Pheffer, came up with the dynamite, purportedly found in Langa's basement, that corroborated Peak's story.  However, police crime scene photographs of the basement do not picture dynamite.  The explosives do not appear in evidence photos until they show up in the trunk of a police squad car.

 

In a bid for a new trial, filed in 2004, Poindexter is now before the state high court where the justices must rule on a variety of matters including the discovery of the dynamite.  Poindexter's appeal brief details the different versions given by the two officers.

 

"At Poindexter's trial, Sgt. Swanson testified that he found dynamite in Rice's basement at 2816 Parker, and that Sgt. Pheffer was also in the basement when Swanson found it.  Contrary to Swanson's trial testimony, Pheffer testified that he (Pheffer) never went down into Rice's basement, and that he (Pheffer) first saw the dynamite found by Swanson when Swanson carried it up from Rice's basement."

 

"At Poindexter's post-conviction hearing on May 30, 2007, Pheffer's testimony about finding the dynamite in Rice's basement was significantly different from his sworn trial testimony 36 years earlier.  On May 30, 2007, Pheffer testified he was the one who found the dynamite in Rice's basement….Pheffer claimed that Swanson was right behind him and that when Pheffer saw the dynamite, he became scared and told Swanson that they needed to 'get the heck out of here'".

 

"When confronted with the discrepancy between Pheffer's sworn trial testimony in 1971 and his recent testimony of actually being the officer who found the dynamite, Pheffer swore that this trial testimony in 1971 was not correct, that 'the court reporter, somebody got it wrong.'".

 

"At trial, Officer Swanson testified that he found dynamite in Rice's basement, and that Officer Pheffer was also in the basement when he found it.  Contrary to Swanson's testimony, Pheffer testified that he never went down to the basement.  Whether perjury or simply inconsistent statements, Pheffer's testimony about being in the basement when the dynamite was found was an extremely significant discrepancy."

 

"When confronted with this contradiction on May 30th, he vehemently denied that he had testified thus at trial.  For Officer Pheffer now to disavow his trial testimony calls into question the credibility of the trial testimony of both Officers Swanson and Pheffer."

 

District Judge Russell Bowie, who heard Pheffer's contradictory testimony, shrugged off the opposing sworn statements in his Sept. 10, 2007 ruling against a new trial.  "Other than the conflicting reports about who found the dynamite in Rice's basement, there is no evidence to suggest that the dynamite was planted by police.  The bottom line is that dynamite was found in Rice's basement, who found it is immaterial."

 

Another reason the credibility of Pheffer is now in question strongly suggests perjury rather than inconsistency.  Pheffer has twice claimed to have found evidence of bomb-making supplies that were never seen by anyone else, not identified in any police report, and are missing from Pheffer's own investigative reports.

 

"Pheffer's post-conviction testimony is also notable related to what he claimed to have found in a closet in Rice's first floor bedroom.  Pheffer claimed that during the search he went into Rice's bedroom, and in a closet, he found three attaché suitcases, Samsonite, kind of grayish, kind of bluish, gray color that had wires sticking out of all three of them.  Pheffer claimed that after finding these attaché cases, either the ATF or one of the cruisers got a rope and "gingerly wrapped" the rope through the three handles of the suitcase and "lead it out the bedroom through the front room, outside the steps, hid behind a cruiser and pulled it."  Pheffer then claimed  that because the suitcases didn't "go off", they opened the cases and found they were wired inside, probably, he assumes, to make three more suitcase bombs."

 

"Asked about the reports that he completed regarding the search at 2816 Parker, Pheffer acknowledged that Exhibit 142 and 106 were reports of the search; but that these reports stated nothing about any attache cases being found."

 

"Interestingly, Pheffer also claimed to have found an attaché case during the search of NCCF headquarters on August 22, 1970.  More specifically, Pheffer testified at Poindexter's suppression hearing that he (Pheffer) found "an attaché case in the front room with wires and a clothespin attached to it."  Pheffer also acknowledged that the property and incident reports surrounding the search at NCCF headquarters contained no mention whatsoever of finding the attaché case with wires and a clothespin attached."

 

The next step in the litigation is for the prosecution to submit a response to Poindexter's appeal.  No date has been scheduled for a decision.

 

Poindexter's attorney, Robert Bartle of Lincoln, Nebraska, sums the case up with a simple statement, "It is about injustice."

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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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Your analysis of this under-reported story is very... by Hans Bennett on Wednesday, Jan 30, 2008 at 7:09:25 PM