Fifty years ago, April 1, 1971, was the opening day of the Patrolman Larry Minard murder trial in Omaha, Nebraska. Prosecutor Arthur O’Leary, Deputy Douglas County Attorney, used the opening statement to tell the jury false information. Co-defendants Edward Poindexter and David Rice (later Wopashitwe Mondo Eyen we Langa) were Black Panther leaders, officers in the local National Committee to Combat Fascism. O’Leary sought the death penalty in Nebraska’s electric chair for the two men who had been subjects of a year-long harassment campaign by the Omaha Police Department.
Officer Minard was killed on August 17, 1970 when a bomb exploded at a vacant house where he and other policemen were searching for a screaming woman as reported by an anonymous 911 caller. The Black Panthers were blamed for the crime and the two leaders charged with murder. The bomb had been planted at the vacant house by a fifteen year old Panther wannabe, Duane Peak.
The murder trial opened at the Douglas County Courthouse where half a century earlier Will Brown was lynched after a mob stormed the building. The fifth-floor main courtroom was under tight security as visitors were searched before entering.
O’Leary explained to the jury the two men were “militants” and conspired to kill a policeman with a suitcase bomb. O’Leary said, “The evidence will show writings by the Defendant Poindexter and the Defendant Rice as to the political tenets and the aims of that particular party.”
O’Leary stressed the case would depend largely on the testimony of confessed teen-age bomber Duane Peak. O’Leary said that Peak’s testimony would be verified through the statements of other prosecution witnesses along with scientific evidence. As O’Leary summarized Peak’s story for the jury he told how Raleigh House supplied the suitcase for the bomb, adding that Poindexter was present when House picked up the suitcase. “As a matter of fact, Duane Peak…was driven by a Rollie House with Mr. Poindexter to another residence.”
However, Peak’s testimony would contradict O’Leary as Peak claimed only he and Raleigh House went together for the suitcase and dynamite. Public Defender Frank Morrison, a retired politician and rusty in a courtroom, never required O’Leary to explain the discrepancy after Peak’s testimony failed to implicate Poindexter in the acquisition of bomb-making supplies.
O’Leary’s false statement that Poindexter collected bomb-making supplies with Duane Peak and Raleigh House is a bitter irony. Poindexter was sentenced to life in prison, where he still is caged fifty years later; while House spent one night in jail and was never prosecuted for providing the suitcase and explosive; and Peak, who planted the bomb, served a couple of years in juvenile detention and never spent a single night in prison.
Was O’Leary’s false charge to the jury against Poindexter a slip of the tongue that he failed to correct or a deliberate falsehood? O’Leary’s conduct during the police investigation deprives him of the benefit of the doubt when he announced, in front of a court reporter, that the truth did not matter.
One of Duane Peak’s interrogations was actually a deposition where O’Leary browbeat the sixteen year-old Peak. In a post-trial hearing O’Leary said he couldn’t remember what he told Peak but did concede he asked some poor questions. The transcript tells an ugly story about O’Leary’s little regard for the truth.
O’Leary to Peak: “I want to go over it once again. As a practical matter, it doesn’t make any difference what the truth is concerning you at all.”
O’Leary continued his attempt to extract information: “It doesn’t hurt you one bit to tell me the rest, if there is any more.”
“You realize now that it doesn’t make any difference whether you did or didn’t. That doesn’t really make one bit of difference at all at this stage of the game but I want to make sure concerning somebody else that might have been involved. Because you see what it amounts to, Duane, is that eventually you are going to have to testify about everything you said here and it isn’t going to make one bit of difference whether or not you leave out one fact or not, as far as you are concerned.”
Ed Poindexter, in poor health, is imprisoned at the maximum security Nebraska State Penitentiary where he continues to maintain his innocence. Poindexter has a commutation of sentence request pending before the Nebraska Board of Pardons although the Board has announced it will hear pardon requests from ex-prisoners seeking restoration of rights before considering the case of Poindexter and other prisoners seeking commutation. The Board policy flies in the face of Covid virus recommendations to reduce inmate populations.
Co-defendant David Rice was also convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Rice later changed his name to Wopashitwe Mondo Eyen we Langa, made up from four different African languages. Mondo died at the prison in March 2016.
A citizen campaign to urge the Pardon Board to commute Poindexter’s sentence to time served is underway and has held news conferences, paid for a billboard campaign, had a march and prayer vigil, and demonstrated at the home of Governor Pete Ricketts who chairs the Board.
This article is excerpted from FRAMED: J. Edgar Hoover, COINTELPRO & the Omaha Two story, in print edition at Amazon and available 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.