Joseph Heller's wonderful WWII novel, "Catch-22," about the psychic
costs of flying too many bombing missions, explains its title in this
"Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was
ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have
to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and
sane if he didn't, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew
them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was
sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute
simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful
whistle. 'That's some catch, that Catch-22,' he observed."
For some reason I was reminded of that passage when I was
reading about the Rice-Poindexter case.
You remember the Rice-Poindexter case. It's the one that
just won't go away.
That's David Rice (who's since changed his name to Mondo we
Langa) and Ed Poindexter, both sentenced to life in prison for the
1970 suitcase bombing that killed Omaha police officer Larry Minard.
They were convicted largely on the testimony of a 15-year-old boy
named Duane Peak.
At a morning preliminary hearing Peak provided evidence that
seemed to exonerate Rice and Poindexter, but after the noon break, he
changed his story to one that suggested their guilt. Prior to that
testimony Peak had been the primary suspect, having been the one
thought to have called police to report a woman screaming at the
address where the booby-trap suitcase would later explode, killing
Rice and Poindexter had been Black Panther activists; former
Gov. Frank Morrison, who was the Douglas County Public Defender in
1970, later said that the two "were convicted for their rhetoric, not
for any crime they committed."
Both claimed innocence in 1970 and still claim innocence
today. And a growing band of soft-hearts (among whom I sometimes
count myself) believe them. They include do-good groups like the
ACLU, Amnesty International, the NAACP, Nebraskans for Peace, and
Nebraskans for Justice.
(In an statement of self-disclosure, I admit that I am now,
or have been in the past, a member of more than one of those
Earlier this summer, Poindexter's lawyer, Robert Bartle,
filed a petition to the Douglas County District Court asking that
Poindexter be given a new trial.
(In another statement of self-disclosure, I admit that one
Bob Bartle was once a student in an English class I was trying to
The petition makes several claims, among them:
that in the 1970 trial Poindexter did not receive
"effective assistance of trial counsel" as guaranteed by the
The Truth, Mainly
that "investigating officers and/or prosecutors" were
guilty of "prosecutorial misconduct";
that Poindexter's right to a "fair and impartial jury" was
violated when the jury was instructed to decide "guilt or innocence
while simultaneously deciding whether to sentence the defendant to the
It's that last claim that really jumps off the page. As the
petition puts it, "Poindexter had to defend his innocence, while he
simultaneously argued for a life sentence. He had to forego the
benefits of presumption of innocence by arguing for life imprisonment.
This gave the jury the wrong impression that because Poindexter argued
for a life sentence, he was admitting some level of guilt."
If that claim is true, it means that he was forced into a
Catch-22 world where in effect, he had to make contradictory pleas:
"I'm not guilty of murdering anyone. Please give me a life sentence."
If he hadn't asked for the life sentence, he might have been
given the death sentence for a murder he says he didn't commit, but
asking for a life sentence seems to imply an admission that he did
murder someone. In either case, like Orr, he's caught in a Catch-22
One that comes dangerously close to the Queen of Hearts'
idea of jurisprudence in "Alice in Wonderland": "Sentence
And if the Omaha jury wasn't confused at that point, it
should have been.
I don't pretend to know whether Rice and Poindexter did in fact
Officer Minard, but I'm convinced there's something wrong with putting
a defendant in the position of arguing for a life sentence at the same
time he's arguing that he's innocent of the crime the life sentence
would be punishment for.
After 33 years, it's time for a new trial. And this time,
let's do it right: verdict first, sentence afterwards.
Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity
from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail