In the third day of courtroom action in convicted Black Panther leader Ed Poindexter's bid for a new trial, startling testimony from retired Omaha Police detective Robert Pheffer contradicted his original account of finding bomb-making supplies in the home of Mondo we Langa, a co-defendant of Poindexter's in the controversial 1970 murder case.
Poindexter and Langa, then known as David Rice, were officers in Nebraska's chapter of the Black Panthers, the National Committee to Combat Facism, when a booby-trap suitcase bomb in a vacant house claimed the life of Larry Minard, an Omaha policeman. Minard and other policemen responded to a 911 call about a woman screaming in a vacant house only to find a bomb waiting for them. Poindexter and Langa were arrested and convicted for the crime largely on the testimony of 15 year-old Duane Peak, the confessed bomber, and evidence found by police at Langa's house.
The 911 call was never used at the trial of the Panther leaders and the tape disappeared. Years later, a copy resurfaced along with a secret FBI memo that warned the tape was harmful to the prosecution's case. Tom Owen, a voice analyst testified on the second day of Poindexter's hearing that the voice on the 911 tape was not that of Peak who gained a reduced sentence for his testimony implicating Poindexter and Langa. Peak claimed the two Panther leaders made the bomb that he planted before making the 911 call.
Dynamite, allegedly found in Langa's basement, has always been a controversial element in the case. No crime scene photographs place the dynamite in Langa's house and the first time the explosives show up in an evidence photo are in the trunk of a police cruiser.
At the 1971 murder trial, Detective Pheffer testified the first time he saw the dynamite was, "When Sgt. Swanson carried the box up from the basement of the Rice house." Pheffer also stated at the trial he never went down into the basement.
Now, thirty-six years later and no longer on the police force, Pheffer has a different version of events. Pheffer claims he found the dynamite in the basement. According to the Omaha World-Herald, Pheffer testified, "I'm telling you I went down there, I was the original officer down there."
Pheffer's memory has improved with age and he also now claims to have found three suitcases upstairs with wires in them--suitcases never previously mentioned in any police report, missing from the search inventory, and never introduced as evidence at trial.
Poindexter and Langa had been the targets of COINTELPRO, an illegal dirty-tricks operation of the FBI that was directed at radical groups particularly the Black Panthers. COINTELPRO agents worked with local police departments to obtain convictions and assisted the Omaha Police in making the case against Poindexter and Langa. Two of the techniques used by COINTELPRO in other cases around the country involved withholding exculpatory evidence and suborning perjury.
Jack Swanson, who allegedly found the dynamite in Langa's basement in Pheffer's first version of the story at trial, would later justify the police actions in August 1970 with an interview statement, "I think we did the right thing at the time because the Black Panther Party…completely disappeared from Omaha [after] we got the two main players."
Further testimony in the case is scheduled later in the month after which a Douglas County judge will decide whether or not to grant Poindexter a new trial. Langa had his conviction overturned by a federal district court judge several years after his trial but the U.S. Supreme Court said Langa's fate belonged to the Nebraska courts instead. The Nebraska Supreme Court then denied Langa's bid for a new trial arguing his appeal time ran out while his case was pending in federal court.
The late Frank Morrison, a three-term former Nebraska governor, was Poindexter's public defender and wrote in a letter before his death, "The self-confessed murderer was turned loose after a slap on the wrist….I feel both I and the system failed Ed Poindexter."