newly released interview transcript helps show that omaha two are innocent of murder

by Tim Phillips

On August 17, 1970, Omaha Police Department officers arrived at a vacant house in response to an anonymous 911 caller who reported a woman screaming for help. To get into the house, the officers had to step over a suitcase near the doorway. As the officers searched the house, the suitcase exploded, injuring officer John Tess and instantly killing officer Larry Minard Sr.

The suitcase, which contained dynamite, was constructed to explode when moved. A 15-year old, Duane Peak, was charged with first degree murder related to the incident. In an attempt to reduce his sentence, Peak said two members of the Black Panther Party, Edward Poindexter and Mondo we Langa (formerly David Rice), were involved. Poindexter and we Langa were convicted in April 1971 and are now serving life sentences at the maximum-security Nebraska State Penitentiary for their alleged participation in the murder. They continue to deny any involvement.

After his conviction, we Langa filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the U.S. District Court for Nebraska, seeking to be released. In 1974, Judge Warren Urbom concluded that suspicious dynamite particles admitted into evidence at trial should have been suppressed, as they were discovered during an illegal search:

Since it is clear that the introduction of the evidence seized in the illegal search and the dynamite particles substantially contributed to the petitioner’s conviction, that introduction was not harmless error. Therefore, the petitioner must either be released from custody or granted a new trial free from the tainted evidence.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Judge Urbom’s ruling in 1975, but due to a subsequent U.S. Supreme Court opinion (concluding that the state court system already provided an opportunity for “full and fair litigation” of the illegal search claim), we Langa was never released or granted a new trial. Poindexter challenged his conviction, too, arguing that his right to a fair trial was violated because, among other reasons, newspaper articles advocating the overthrow of the government were erroneously introduced at trial. In November 1975, Judge Urbom disagreed, concluding that any errors that occurred did not amount to a denial of due process.

Two days ago, the transcript of an interview with an Omaha police lieutenant, James Perry, was released. Perry was a commanding officer in the investigation regarding Minard’s murder. When asked by a private detective, Tom Gorgen, whether the dynamite supposedly found in we Langa’s basement could have been planted there, Perry claimed he didn’t even know what a stick of dynamite looked like or how to deal with it.

Yet in a 2002 interview, the transcript of which was just released, Perry admitted he stored his own cache of dynamite beginning in July 1970, the month before Minard was killed. Perry, who was confident he knew exactly who murdered Minard, could therefore have placed the dynamite in we Langa’s basement in an attempt to guarantee a conviction. As Perry is now deceased, there may never be conclusive proof.