Pete Ricketts is a “law and order” governor who led a campaign to restore the death penalty in Nebraska after the legislature outlawed capital punishment. Ricketts can be depended upon to be unsympathetic to Edward Poindexter, an imprisoned Black Panther leader accused of murdering a policeman in a bombing ambush. However, it lies within the power of Ricketts to order a sentence commutation review to examine Poindexter’s case for wrongful conviction.
Poindexter and co-defendant David Rice (later Wopashitwe Mondo Eyen we Langa) were convicted for the August 17, 1970 murder of Omaha Patrolman Larry Minard at a 1971 trial marred by conflicting police testimony, perjured testimony, planted evidence, and a withheld FBI Laboratory report. The two men were leaders of the National Committee to Combat Fascism and targets of the clandestine COINTELPRO program of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
J. Edgar Hoover, the controversial director of the FBI, waged a secret, illegal counterintelligence operation against people and groups he deemed dangerous. Hoover had demanded Special Agent in Charge Paul Young get the two Panther leaders off Omaha streets. In December 1969, Hoover complained about inaction by Young and ordered the SAC to get “imaginative” and deliver results.
When the bombing happened in Omaha the FBI responded immediately and steered the police investigation toward Poindexter and Rice. Young arranged with Deputy Chief Glen Gates to dispose of the 911 recording which captured the voice of an anonymous caller luring Minard to his death. A recording was sent to the FBI Laboratory along with a memorandum explaining no written report was to be issued on the identity of the 911 caller. The jury that convicted the Omaha Two never got to hear the voice of the anonymous caller, the principle piece of evidence in the case.
The jury also considered dynamite evidence that four federal judges said should have been excluded from the trial. U. S. District Court Judge Warren Urbom ruled there should be “a new trial free from the tainted evidence.” Three federal judges of the U. S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the trial constituted a deprivation of “a basic constitutional right.”
The case was returned to Nebraska courts to consider a new trial despite Judge Urbom’s warning that such a move would be an exercise in futility. Predictably, the Nebraska Supreme Court dismissed further appeals in the case and ignored the federal admonition that a new trial was needed. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan called the decision to send the case back to Nebraska courts “profoundly disturbing.”
COINTELPRO was a sometimes lethal campaign against the Black Panther Party. In Omaha, the plan was to use Nebraska’s electric chair instead of the more traditional police pre-dawn raid where guns and bullets were used. Prosecutor Donald Knowles sought the death penalty against Poindexter and Rice. The jury that convicted the two men, after three days of deliberation, ordered their lives spared and the pair were sentenced to life without parole.
The unfair trial is the subject of my book FRAMED: J. Edgar Hoover, COINTELPRO, & the Omaha Two story. This spring I visited Ricketts’ office in the State Capitol and left a copy of the book detailing the injustice of the case for the governor to read. I also asked Ricketts by letter to examine the case. Ricketts responded by acknowledging receipt of the book but ignored my request to review the case. When asked by the Omaha World-Herald about the review request Ricketts had no comment.
Although Ricketts gave an oath to uphold the Nebraska Constitution and its provisions for fair trials the case of Edward Poindexter, who escaped the electric chair by order of the jury, presents the governor with a major dilemma. If Ricketts does review Poindexter’s case and finds the flawed conviction should be remedied with a commutation of sentence he will be admitting his campaign to restore the death penalty had a major flaw ignoring the dangers of wrongful conviction. Caught between his oath of office and his advocacy of execution Ricketts is reduced to silence.
My message to Pete Ricketts is simple. Take the high road and do the right thing. Open a commutation inquiry into Ed Poindexter’s conviction. Pursue justice because the Nebraska Supreme Court did not. Uphold your oath of office.
This article contains excerpts from FRAMED: J. Edgar Hoover, COINTELPRO & the Omaha Two story, in print edition at Amazon and in ebook. Portions of the book may be read free online at NorthOmahaHistory.com. The book is also available to patrons of the Omaha Public Library.