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The Truth, Mainly - 06/30/1997

Anti-government rant (circa 1970): Rice-Poindexter revisited

Ever since the Oklahoma City bombing, I've not been able to stand anti-government ranters. You know. the militia types who keep watching for black helicoptors to shake their fists at.

But then a couple of weeks ago, I read about a California judge, Everett Dickey, who overturned Geronimo Pratt's 1972 murder conviction, and I felt myself awash in my own anti-government rants, circa 1970.

The basis of the reversal was that the FBI hadn't played fair.

Pratt was a decorated Vietnam and a practicing Black Panther when he was found guilty of a 1968 murder in Santa Monica. He claimed that when the murder happened he was nearly 400 miles away at a Black Panther meeting in Oakland.

The key prosecution witness was a fellow Black Panther named Julius Butler who testified that Pratt had confessed to him.

The trouble, Dickey ruled, was that the prosecution neglected to tell the jury that Butler was a paid infiltrator and informant for the FBI. So after 25 years, Dickey ordered a new trial for Pratt, and released him on $25,000 bail.

To get a sense of why the judge felt Butler's FBI connection should have been made clear, you need to remember that J. Edgar Hoover had a thing about Black Panthers. So did a lot of white Americans. We were uncomfortable around them because they accused us of rotten things.

But as director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover didn't have to put up with being accused of rotten things. He called the Panthers "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country" and established a sub-agency spiffily named COINTELPRO to "prevent these militants from gaining respectability…[to] expose or neutralize them."

In other words, as an employee of Hoover's FBI, Butler may have had a conflict of interest that the jury should have known about.

Is this starting to sound familiar?

That Rice-Poindexter case just won't go away, will it?

David Rice and Ed Poindexter are one-time Black Panthers who are serving life sentences for the 1970 booby-trap killing of an Omaha policeman, Larry Minard. Both maintain their innocence. Both, like Pratt, say they're political prisoners, victims of COINTELPRO zeal.

If you're an anti-government (circa 1970) bleeding-heart liberal, it's easy to see parallels between their case and Pratt's.

The key witness in their trial was Duane Peak, a 15-year-old who admitted putting a suitcase bomb in an empty house, then luring police there with a phone call about a screaming woman. Officer Minard was killed when he moved the suitcase.

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Peak testified that Rice and Poindexter put him up to it. They made the bomb, he said, and they hatched the plot.

But he changed his story several times, most dramatically between a morning session and an afternoon session in court. So anti-government types (circa 1970) worry that Peak's testimony may have been coerced by government bullyboys.

We also worry about a document (obtained through the Freedom of Information Act) which says FBI tapes of Peak's phone call shouldn't be made available because they "might be prejudicial to the police murder trial…."

Peak spent four years in juvenile detention, then disappeared.

Here's the anti-government question that gives us the fantods: If Butler's testimony against Pratt was tainted by his possible conflict of interest as an unacknowledged FBI employee, is it unreasonable to ask if Peak's testimony was similarly tainted? Not that he was paid in cash but because he might have been paid with minimal punishment and relocation out of the state.

But that's a mere technicality, my current self tells my 1970 self, having nothing to do with the guilt of Rice and Poindexter. Then I remember the words of former Governor Frank Morrison:

"They weren't convicted of murder. They were convicted of rhetoric."

So I continue to ask myself 2 a.m. questions: What if Larry Minard's killer is still out there somewhere? What if two men are about to begin their 28th year in prison not for what they did, but for what they said?

That's about the time I imagine the knock on the door that means the FBI has come for me. I drink my glass of milk and eat my graham cracker. Then I go outside with the other anti-government loonies to look for black helicoptors to shake my fist at.

I can't stand it.


Lincoln English Professor Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays.


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