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Wages of Cointelpro Still Evident


In 1980, former FBI Director L. Patrick Grey and Edward S. Miller,

one-time head of Squad 47, the domestic counterintelligence unit in the FBI’s New York

Field Office, were convicted of having "conspired to injure and oppress the citizens

of the United States." The context of their crimes was COINTELPRO, a secret,

nationwide campaign conducted by the Bureau from 1956-1971 for purposes of destroying

"politically objectionable" organizations and individuals through any and every

means available to it.In 1975, an invesigating committee headed by Senator Frank Church

found that the operation had, from start to finish, be "fraught with

illegality."

Neither Grey nor Miller ever spent a day in jail as a result of

their convictions. In April 1981, President Ronald Reagan interupted their appeals to

announce that he was bestowing pardons on both men. The reason stated was that their

miseddeds had occurred during an especially turbulent and divisive period in American

history. It was time to "put all this behind us," Reagan said, and "to

forgive those who engaged in excesses" during the political conflicts of the era.

At the time, it was pointed out that if this were to be Reagan’s

policy, it would be at least as appropriate for him to pardon the numerous victims of

COINTELPRO as to forgive its perpetrators. We noted how the Church Committee had

discovered that a COINTELPRO technique had been to use the courts to

"neutralize" selected activists by obtaining false convictions against them,

that the FBI typically involved local police in such endeavors, and that of all the groups

targeted in this manner the Black Panther Party (BPP) had been hit hardest and most

extensively.

No action was take by the Reagan administration in this connection,

however, and former Panthers continued to serve time, many of them in cases showing clear

signs of COINTELPRO manipulation. It would be another decade before the first such

prisoner, a once prominent New York BPP leader named Dhoruba bin Wahad (Richard Moore),

was finally released after spending 21 years behind bars on a wrongful conviction. His

case is instructive.

In 1989, it was conclusively established that the prosecution, with

the active collaboration of Miller’s Squad 47, had withheld exculpatory ballistics reports

during the 1973 trial in which bin Wahad was found guilty of attempting to murder two

police officers. It was also shown that members of Squad 47, working with detectives from

the NYPD Red Squad, had suborned perjury from the state’s star witness. The FBI had

repeatedly denied the existence of documents confirming these facts for a dozen years

(1975-87), thereby thwarting bi Wahad’s right to appeal. The conviction was finally

overturned in 1990.

Similar circumstances attend the case of Geronimo ji Jaga Pratt,

former head of the Panthers’ Los Angeles chapter. Charged in 1970 with a 1968 murder in

Santa Monica, Pratt always maintained that he was 350 miles away at the time, attending a

BPP meeting in Oakland. At trial he argued that, since the FBI had bugged the meeting, its

electronic surveillance logs would verify his whereabouts, and thus his innocence. An FBI

official then took the stand and denied that any such surveillance had occurred.

Years later, after the Church Committee confirmed that the

surveillence had in fact been conducted, the FBI rather implausibly claimed to have

"lost" the relevant logs. Nonetheless, Pratt’s conviction was not overturned

until 1997, when it was proven that Julio C. Butler — the state’s star witness and,

unknown to the jury, a paid FBI informant — had perjured himself on key points. By then,

Pratt had served 27 years.

This case is especially illuminating in that a career FBI agent, M.

Wesley Swearingen, has testified that Pratt was deliberately framed by the FBI as part of

its campain to destroy the Black Panther Party. Swearingen’s testimony corroborates to a

significant extent an earlier account provided by Louis Tackwood, at one time an informant

paid by the PAPD Red Squad to infiltrate the Los Angeles BPP chapter. According to

Tackwood, Red Squad detectives and FBI COINTELPRO personnel simply sat down one afternoon

with a stack of unsolved case files, looking for the murder with which Pratt might be most

feasibly charged. They then orchestrated appropriate "evidence" and had him

prosecuted.

Currently, attention is shifting to still another case involving

former Black Panthers and bearing the indelible imprint of COINTELPRO. From its inception,

the allegation that one-time Omaha BPP leaders Mondo we Langa (David Rice) and Edward

Poindexter were involved in the 1970 murder of Police Officer Larry Minard has been

strained. Duane Peak, the only person known for certain to have particupated in the

bombing that killed Minard, mentioned neither man in his original confession. Nor did he

in his second, more detailed statement to the police. Indeed, he testified at a

preliminary hearing that Rice and Poindexter were not involved.

Meanwhile, Peak had named six other men, none of them active BPP

members, and none of them ever charged. His story changed only after prosecutors offered

him a deal in which he could plead as a juvenile — thereby serving only two years — in

exchange for incriminating the local BPP leadership.

Rice and Poindexter were convicted in April 1971, mainly on the

basis of Peak’s testimony. There is ample indication he perjured himself. As to physical

evidence supporting Peak’s account, a federal court ruled in 1974 that the search through

which it was allegedly found was illegal (a matter admitting to the possibility that it

was planted, as Rice has insisted all along). A new trial was ordered at that time, but

prevented by a jurisdictional technicality applied post hoc by the Supreme Court in 1976.

Further appeals were blocked by yet another technicality: the

statutory time limit for filing in Nebraska courts had expired while Rice and Poindexter

awaited an outcome in the federal process. One result has been severe constraints on their

ability to reopen the case in light of FBI documents released in 1978. These reveal that

police detectives collaborated with FBI personnel to suppress exculpatory evidence during

the 1971 trial.

Such subversion of the judicial process is consistent with the

COINTELPRO methods employed against bin Wahad and Pratt, as well as the fact that the

Omaha BPP chapter — Rice and Poindexter in particular — were targeted for COINTELPRO

neutralization in mid-1968.

The motive underlying police performance in the Rice/Poindexter case

was recently spelled out by Jack Swanson, the detective who headed up the 1970 bombing

investigation. "I think we did the right thing at the time," he told a BBC

interviewer, "because the Black Panther Party…completely disappeared from Omaha

[after] we got the two main players."

Former Nebraska Governor Frank Morrison has observed that Rice and

Poindexter "were convicted for their rhetoric, not for any crime they

committed." Amnesty International, the NAACP, Jericho ’98 and the Congressional Black

Caucus have all taken up the case. Since 1993, the Nebraska Parole Board has voted

unanimously and repeatedly to commute both men’s sentences to time served. Yet, to date,

the Nebraska Board of Pardons has refused to schedule a hearing in the matter. One Board

member has even asserted that there are "no circumstances" under which he would

consider commutation.

Simple justice demands reversal of this position. Surely, even if

one believes Rice and Poindexter were involved in Minard’s death, it must be conceded that

28 years of incarceration is sufficient punishment. After all, Nebraska’s Board of Pardons

commuted the sentence of even the notorious Caril Ann Fugate — an admitted participant in

11 murders — after less than 20 years.

Moreover, the fact that Rice and Poindexter were denied the due

process rights to which all citizens are and must be entitled leaves a quite reasonable

concern that they are innocent of the offense for which they have been imprisoned for more

than a quarter-century. Contrary to the sentiment expressed by the Board member quoted

above, there are no circumstances in which prolonging the situation is an acceptable

option.

Ultimately, and perhaps ironically, Ronald Reagan had it right. By

1981, it was indeed time to forgive those whose offenses, real or perceived, accrued from

the sociopolitical vortex of the Vietnam era. Can there be serious doubt that the

principle is as applicable to former Black Panthers as to former FBI officials? Anything

else would be a travesty of justice, and the country has already witnessed far too many of

these.

What is done cannot be undone, but the future can be changed. Mondo

we Langa and Ed Poindexter deserve at this late date not just to be heard but to be free

men, reintegrated with and contributing their undeniable talents to their community,

participating fully in the ongoing process of healing and reconciliation about which

President Reagan spoke so glowingly 18 years ago.

Those desiring further information on the Rice/Poindexter case

and/or wishing to support their petitions for commutation of sentence should contact:

Tekla Johnson Lincoln Justice Committee P.O. Box 4756 Lincoln, NE

68504

 

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