LINCOLN — David Rice, who has long gone by the name Mondo we Langa, took his last breath in prison Friday, continuing to insist that he was innocent in one of the most sensational slayings in Omaha’s history, the booby-trap bombing of Police Officer Larry Minard in 1970.
Friends and supporters had recently mounted a new effort to free him.
A dozen letters were written to the Nebraska Board of Pardons asking for a "compassionate release" because the 68-year-old inmate was slowly dying from end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. A new defense attorney was preparing a request for a formal hearing before the board.
He told friends he didn’t want any part of it. Even if he won a long-shot pardon, it would not exonerate him, he told them. It would just forgive him for a crime still attributed to him.
"I didn’t do this (crime). The only way I want out of this place is for them to admit I was an innocent person," Rice said, according to Buddy Hogan, a longtime friend.
Hogan, a former human relations director for the City of Omaha and former head of the NAACP in the city, said he’s convinced that Rice was framed.
"That’s not how a guilty man talks," he said.
Rice and Ed Poindexter, two leaders of a Black Panther-like militant group in north Omaha, were both sentenced to life in prison after a trial in 1971.
Prosecutors said the two built a homemade suitcase bomb and instructed a 15-year-old youth to place it in an abandoned house in north Omaha, at 2867 Ohio St.
A 911 caller reported a woman was screaming in the house. Officers responded, and when Minard, a 29-year-old married father of five, leaned over and touched the suitcase, it exploded, killing him.
The case still generates strong emotions and controversy and still gets national attention. The shocking death of an Omaha police officer took place in one of the most racially charged periods of the city’s history.
Two years earlier, in 1968, north Omaha had been rocked by rioting. In the summer of 1969, an unarmed 14-year-old black girl, Vivian Strong, was fatally shot by a white police officer. In 1970, before Minard was killed, bombings had occurred in several Midwestern cities. Tensions were high.
Many insist that the jury’s decision and years of denied appeals show that the right men were convicted in the case. Others, including activist Angela Davis and former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, say the two men were framed by authorities because of the radical politics of the age.
Hogan, now retired in Chatsworth, California, sponsors a website dedicated to the case, called Nebraska’s Two Political Prisoners: Injustice in the Midlands.
An organization called Nebraskans for Justice was formed to promote the claims of a wrongful conviction.
And a freelance writer who grew up in Omaha and lived near the bombing scene is wrapping up a book about the case. Its preliminary title: "Framed: The Story of J. Edgar Hoover and the Omaha Two."
Michael Richardson, who met Rice when both attended Omaha City Council meetings back in the 1960s, has spent the past decade interviewing him and Poindexter and digging through FBI files.
The Omaha Two, he said, were targeted by Hoover’s program to discredit black militants of that era, a program called Cointelpro, for "counter intelligence program."
Richardson said he believes that the two were convicted because of evidence that was withheld, planted or tampered with by federal and local authorities. He also said he believes the star witness in the case, Duane Peak, the teen who testified that he planted the bomb, lied.
Peak, who escaped prosecution in exchange for his testimony, gave seven different versions of events, only two of which implicated Rice and Poindexter, the writer said.
Peak maintained that he’d called 911, but a specialist who analyzed a tape of the call years later concluded that the deep voice was not Peak’s.
The Nebraska Supreme Court, in 2009, rejected a request for a new trial for Poindexter, ruling that he had failed to prove that the outcome of his trial would have been changed by the analysis.
Lincoln attorney Bob Bartle, who represented Poindexter, said that the pair’s original defense attorneys were not told that a tape recording had been made of the 911 call, a disclosure that could have dramatically changed the original trial.
Bartle pointed out that Rice at one point had won an order for a new trial from U.S. District Judge Warren Urbom, who ruled that there had been an illegal search of Rice’s home. But later, the attorney said, the U.S. Supreme Court changed its rules concerning such orders, which ruled out a new trial.
While Minard’s death was a tragedy, Bartle said, there are many who question whether the right people were convicted.
"A lot of people who have studied the case have said they certainly didn’t get a fair trial, based on all the stuff that wasn’t disclosed," he said. "There’s a significant question if they were guilty at all."
One of Minard’s surviving children, when reached by telephone Monday night, declined to comment. In the past, family members have been steadfast in their belief that the two were guilty.
Rice was described by friends as a talented poet, artist and journalist who was well respected by fellow inmates. He took an African name and slept on a mat on his cell floor because, he said, that’s how Africans slept, according to Hogan.
Rice was a graduate of Creighton Prep, where Hogan, then a college student who was teaching Latin classes, met him. He had no criminal history then, Hogan said, but his rhetoric and writings about police were harsh and inflammatory.
State Sen. Ernie Chambers, who knew Rice before his arrest, said he has always felt the two men were "railroaded" by false testimony and trumped-up evidence. Rice, he said, was a gentle person who knew nothing about bombs.
"The greatest failing they had was the rhetoric they used. They talked things they would never do," said Chambers, who was making his first run for the Legislature in 1970.
Tariq Al-Amin, a former Omaha police officer who is president of Nebraskans for Justice, said Rice died in the prison infirmary, where he had been confined since October. His two brothers were nearby.
All court appeals for the two men have been exhausted.
Al-Amin said it was only in the past week that Rice's supporters had persuaded him to seek a Pardons Board hearing, and he’d agreed on the condition that the petition state he’d been wrongly convicted.
"Now we have to work extra hard on Ed’s case," Al-Amin said. "If we clear up Ed’s name, Mondo will also receive justice."
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Correction: Langa's brothers were misidentified in a previous version of this story.