Justice for the Omaha Two

Ed Poindexter and Mondo we Langa are not names familiar to most Americans.  The longest-serving political prisoners in the United States, these two former Black Panthers have spent more than thirty-five years behind bars for a crime they did not commit — the 1970 murder of Omaha, Nebraska, police officer Larry Minard.

The American media and the political establishment scoff at the very idea that there are political prisoners in the United States.  Yet many sixties militants — especially Black and Native American revolutionaries — were deliberately framed by the police and FBI in their efforts to suppress the radical movements of that period.  The Omaha Two were also caught in that dragnet.  It has been known for decades that they were targets of the FBI’s infamous Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), but it is only lately that long thought-to-be-destroyed evidence has emerged that could lead to a new trial for Ed Poindexter.

A breakthrough in Poindexter’s case could have important ramifications for Mondo we Langa (formerly known as David Rice), who exhausted his appeals thirty years ago.  Amnesty International has classified Mondo we Langa and Ed Poindexter — known as the “Omaha Two” at the time of their trial in 1971 — as “prisoners of conscience.”  The Omaha police and the political leadership of Nebraska have labeled them “cop killers” and have blocked efforts at commuting their sentences or getting them new trials for decades.

Racism in the Heartland

It is a testament to the vibrancy and breadth of the civil rights and Black Power movements that even small cities like Omaha, Nebraska, felt its impact.  North Omaha has long been the center of the Black community in the city, where racism was a daily fact of life.  Many of Omaha’s Black residents faced job and housing discrimination, in addition to police brutality.  During the course of the 1960s a small but vocal movement arose to combat these issues.

The racial situation in Omaha became more polarized during the course of 1968, when arch-segregationist George Wallace made a stop in the city during his independent campaign for president.  White racists attacked Blacks and whites protesting the notorious bigot at one of his campaign rallies.  Later that night, Omaha cops killed a local Black high school student.  The following month, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, leading to uprisings in 100 American cities.  The Black Panther Party (BPP) became the prime target of the FBI’s COINTELPRO operations with the stated goal of “neutralizing” their leadership.  Mondo we Langa and Ed Poindexter were community activists in North Omaha at the time.  They joined the BPP in 1969 and were soon recognized as the leaders of the party in Nebraska.  Poindexter, like a growing number of Panthers, was also a Vietnam veteran.  The situation in Omaha got even bloodier in 1969.  Vivian Strong, a fourteen-year-old Black teenager, was shot in the back of the head and killed by the police in June of that year.  The police officer who killed her, patrolman John Loder, was found not guilty of manslaughter by an all-white jury and was reinstated to the Omaha Police Department (OPD) with back pay and benefits.  “Among the most vocal critics of such police abuse of power,” according to Rutger’s law professor Lennox Hinds, “were members of the local chapter of the Black Panther party and its successor, the National Committee to Combat Fascism (NCCF).”  Ed Poindexter and Mondo we Langa left the Panthers and founded the NCCF in 1970, with Mondo as chairman and Poindexter as minister of information.  They were repeatedly harassed and arrested by the Omaha police for their political activities.

The Bomb

On August 17, 1970, Omaha patrolman Larry Minard was killed by a bomb planted in a suitcase while he was searching an abandoned house.  The police were responding to a 9-1-1 call that claimed a woman was being taken into a house against her will, possibly to be raped.  Soon after the death of Minard, Duane Peak, a fifteen-year-old Black youth, who had been a member of the NCCF, was terrorized into confessing to planting the bomb and making the 9-1-1 call.  Peak made a series of sworn statements to the police that he acted alone.  He did not implicate or mention Mondo or Poindexter.  However, after the police interrogated him and threatened him with the electric chair, he changed his story and Mondo and Poindexter were soon after charged with murder.  Peak himself was allowed to plead to a lesser charge of “juvenile delinquency” in exchange for his testimony.

But Peak would prove to be an unreliable witness for the prosecution.  Under police pressure he told at least six different stories about the bombing, and at a key moment in the trial he blurted out the truth, only to be bludgeoned back into lying.  At Mondo and Poindexter’s 1971 trial, the prosecuting attorney asked Peak if they had anything to do with the killing.  Peak responded by saying no, at which time the prosecutor asked for a recess.  When the trial reconvened, the prosecutor once again asked Peak if Mondo and Poindexter were involved and he responded yes, they were involved.  Peak was wearing dark sunglasses when he returned to court after the recess.  When he was asked to remove the glasses by the defense counsel, many of those present in the courtroom couldn’t help but notice that he appeared to have been beaten and was crying.  Ernie Chambers, who was present in court that day and later became one of the few Black state senators in Nebraska’s unicameral legislature, told the BBC that “a noticeable gasp” was heard from the courtroom audience who were shocked at Peak’s condition.  Dynamite and other bomb-making material was found during an illegal search of Mondo we Langa’s home while he was out of town, but Mondo has always maintained that the material was planted.  The police could not find Mondo or Poindexter’s fingerprints on the dynamite and were not clear as to the exact location of the dynamite in Mondo we Langa’s house.  The Omaha Police claimed that after Mondo and Poindexter were arrested, the clothes they wore were tested and were found to have dynamite particles in the shirt and pants’ pockets.  Yet, Mondo’s and Poindexter’s hands were tested for dynamite particles and none were found there or on the rest of their clothing.  The forensic tests were so faulty, according to the defense, that they could have easily tested positive for such items as kitchen matches or phosphorous detergents among other household products used for cleaning.  Mondo’s home mysteriously burned down after their trial was over.

The only other evidence was a tape recording of the 9-1-1 call that police claim Peak made but then claimed was destroyed by accident.  Peak testified that he made the 9-1-1 call, but since the police claimed that no recording existed, jurors had to take Peak at his word that he made the call.  The whole case ultimately rested on that tape recording.  In an interview with the Washington Post on January 8, 1978, County Prosecutor Art O’Leary admitted that without Peak’s testimony, Mondo and Poindexter would not have been convicted.  Also, Peak was never tested for dynamite particles.  The trial judge, Donald A. Hamilton, overruled the defense motions to suppress the alleged “evidence” found in the home of Mondo and on the clothing of both of them.  They were found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.  The lone Black juror later said that he voted to convict Mondo and Poindexter on the condition that the death penalty was not imposed.  Peak was sentenced to four years at a juvenile facility and released in 1974.  After his release, he promptly disappeared for more than two decades.

Mondo and Poindexter appealed their convictions to the Nebraska Supreme Court, which denied their requests for a new trial and upheld their convictions.  A Federal court later overturned Mondo’s conviction, ruling that the search of his home and clothing violated his rights against unreasonable search and seizure.  But their hopes for a new trial were dashed in 1976 when the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the lower court’s decisions in favor of the prosecution.  Mondo and Poindexter have remained in prison ever since, despite the efforts of Amnesty International, which has called for their immediate release or a new trial, and the support of such prominent individuals as the recently deceased former governor of Nebraska, Frank Morrison.

Two decades after their arrest, Jack Swanson, an Omaha Police Department detective and one of the key figures in the persecution of Mondo and Poindexter, starkly revealed to the BBC the political agenda behind the case.  “We feel we got the two main players in Mondo and Poindexter, and I think we did the right thing at the time, because the Black Panther Party . . . completely disappeared from the city of Omaha . . . and it’s . . . been the end of that sort of thing in the city of Omaha — and that’s 21 years ago.”  Since 1993, the Nebraska Parole Board has voted unanimously and repeatedly to commute both men’s sentences to time served.  However, the Nebraska Board of Pardons (made up of elected officials — the governor, the attorney general, and secretary of state) has refused to grant a pardon or commutation for Mondo or Poindexter.  One member of the Board of Pardons has even declared that there are “no circumstances” under which he would consider commutation.

Suppressed Evidence

It has been known since the late 1970s that the Black Panther Party and its supporters were victims of political repression spearheaded by the FBI working with local police departments across the country during the 1960s and 70s.  Mondo and Poindexter were repeatedly harassed and under surveillance from the FBI and the Omaha police, but it was only after their trial that the role of the FBI in suppressing key evidence was revealed.  For supporters of Mondo and Poindexter, the role of Duane Peak in the bombing death of Minard has always been a point of contention. Did Peak really make a bomb and plant it?  Did he, in fact, make the 9-1-1 call that brought Minard and police officers to the house, where the bomb exploded?  How would a troubled fifteen-year-old get the knowledge to build a bomb and detonate it?  Why would he do it?  The prosecution tried to argue that Poindexter provided the bomb-making skills because he was a veteran, but he was a medical aide and mechanic in the military, not an explosives expert.  The prosecution’s case rested on the recording of the 9-1-1 call that they claimed had been destroyed.

While we may never know exactly who destroyed the original tape recording, we do know that the FBI and the local police knew what was on it and made every effort to prevent the defense from getting it.  According to an FBI memo dated October 13, 1970, “Assistant COP [Chief of Police] GLENN GATES, Omaha PD, advised that he feels that any use of tapes of this call might be prejudicial to the police murder trial against two accomplices of PEAK and, therefore, has advised that he wishes no use of this tape until after the murder trials of PEAK and the two accomplices has been completed.”  When we translate the bureaucratic language of the FBI into plain English, the memo clearly reveals that the Omaha Police felt that the real contents of the call didn’t help their case.  The FBI memo continued, “no further efforts are being made at this time to secure additional tape recordings of the original telephone call.”

In 2005, a copy of the tape of the 9-1-1 call was uncovered.  On January 23, 2006, Bob Bartle, Ed Poindexter’s attorney, obtained a ruling from Douglas County, Nebraska, District Court Judge Richard Spethman to compel Duane Peak to give a voice sample for examination and comparison to the 9-1-1 caller.  Duane Peak, who had been living under the name of Gabriel Peak in Washington state, complied with the court’s request in February and gave a sample of his voice.  Tom Owens, one of the leading audio analysts in the country, has testified for the prosecution and the defense in twenty states.  In a written opinion in April, Owens stated that “the voice of Duane Peak from 2006 is NOT the same voice” on the 9-1-1 tape.  Is this enough to get Ed Poindexter a new trial?  “We have a shot,” says Bob Bartle.  Hearings will be held in January to determine whether this will happen.  But after three decades, this is an important development in a case that too few people are aware of and exemplifies the legacy of political repression in 1960s and 1970s.

Legacy of Repression

“There are hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people I would call political prisoners” in the United States, declared Andrew Young in 1978, when he was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.  Young’s indiscreet remarks ignited a hailstorm of attacks from newspapers and politicians across the country.  That same year, Amnesty International published a report that found that criminal activities of the FBI’s COINTELPRO operations had undermined the trials of a number of political activists during the 1970s, the most prominent of whom was American Indian Movement activist Leonard Peltier.  It has been decades since a major political figure in the United States has so publicly spoken about political prisoners in this country.  In 1980, former FBI Director L. Patrick Grey and Edward S. Miller, one-time head of the FBI’s domestic counterintelligence unit in New York, were convicted of having “conspired to injure and oppress the citizens of the United States,” for their involvement in COINTELPRO.  They served no time in prison and were pardoned in 1981 by President Reagan.  Yet their victims remain in prison.  Currently, Black journalist and Pennsylvania death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal and Ed Poindexter have the possibility of new trials.  A victory in one or both cases could have an enormous impact in unlocking the doors of the American gulag.

Thanks to Mary Dickinson of Nebraskans for Justice for her help in writing this article.  Letters of support can be written to:

Wopashitwe Mondo Eyen we Langa (s/n David Rice) # 27768

PO Box 2500, Lincoln, NE 68542-2500

Ed Poindexter #27767

P.O. Box 2500, Lincoln, NE 68542

Joe Allen is a frequent contributor to the ISR.  This article appears in the current issue of the ISR (www.isreview.org).

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