Wheeled into the courtroom at the Douglas County Courthouse in a wheelchair wearing a bright orange jumpsuit, Ed Poindexter no longer looked like the youthful defiant leader of Nebraska's Black Panther chapter, the National Committee to Combat Fascism, he once was. Instead, his 36 years in prison have taken an obvious toll on Poindexter, convicted in 1971 for the bombing murder of Omaha police officer Larry Minard.
Poindexter was convicted along with Mondo we Langa, formerly David Rice, for building a suitcase bomb and directing 15 year-old Duane Peak to plant it in an empty house and then call police to the deadly trap. Eight officers responded to an emergency call about a woman screaming at a vacant house late one night on Omaha's Near-Northside. Officer Larry Minard died instantly when he picked up the suitcase and detonated the homemade device.
The case against the two Panther leaders was based on the testimony of Peak, the confessed killer, and circumstantial evidence that has since been called into question. Peak actually gave multiple versions of his confession, implicating a variety of people, but settled on his final statement, implicating Poindexter and Langa, after being given a deal to be sentenced as a juvenile and obtain freedom when he became an adult.
Peak allegedly called the police and reported a woman screaming for help at a vacant house on Ohio Street on a summer night in August 1970. However, the tape that lured police to the ambush was never played in court and became lost.
Eventually both a copy of the tape and a secret FBI memo about the tape would surface years later. The memo warned, "Any use of tape of this call might be prejudicial to the police murder trial." The voice on the tape does not appear to be that of Peak and has been determined by an examiner to be someone else. Now a judge is being asked to order a new trial for Poindexter because of the unreliability of Peak's claim he made the call.
In a replay of the emotions that charged Omaha after the bombing, three of Minard's children attended the hearing and denounced Poindexter's efforts to obtain a new trial. Poindexter's public defender was former Governor Frank Morrison, who later, before his own death, wrote a public letter to the Omaha World-Herald expressing belief in Poindexter's innocence and stated both he and the system failed the accused Panther leader.
The FBI memo, obtained under a Freedom of Information request, was part of a larger file from the COINTELPRO operation. COINTELPRO was an illegal misuse of the FBI to assist local police agencies around the country to obtain convictions against radicals, particularly the Black Panthers, using planted evidence and false testimony. Poindexter and Langa had been targeted by the COINTELPRO unit and are now the longest imprisoned activists caught up in the operation.
Both Poindexter and Langa have steadfastly maintained their innocence. Langa has said they were waging a war of words with police and had no knowledge of Peak's deadly plan. Langa had his conviction overturned in federal court and also prevailed for a new trial in the federal appellate court. However, the Supreme Court ordered the matter returned to Nebraska courts for disposition. The Nebraska Supreme Court said Langa had exhausted his state appeal time in federal court and the pair have languished in prison ever since.
Although Poindexter was the one wheeled into court, Langa's fate is linked to the outcome of the hearing as both were implicated by Peak. A new trial for Poindexter would certainly trigger efforts to obtain a new trial for Langa. Already the Nebraska chapter of the ACLU has entered a brief in support of Poindexter's bid for a new trial.
The hearing is expected to take several days and will feature expert testimony about the long withheld emergency call tape recording.