Marshall Eddie Conway was released from a Maryland prison on March 4 after nearly forty-four years behind bars for a crime he says he didn’t commit. Conway, freed over an unconstitutional jury instruction, denied any role in the 1970 murder of Baltimore police officer Donald Sager. Conway was Minister of Defense of the Baltimore Black Panthers and a target of COINTELPRO, the notorious FBI counterintelligence program, at the time of his arrest for the shooting of Sager and a partner.
Two Black Panthers, Jack Ivory Johnson and Jackie Powell, were arrested near the crime scene and confessed claiming the killing was part of an initiation into the group.
Bob Boyle, Conway’s attorney of twenty years, explained the legal maneuver which gained Conway his freedom:
“We’ve actually been trying various legal ways to get Eddie Conway out of prison for many, many years, some based on the counterintelligence program, on the unfairness of his trial, on ineffective assistance of trial counsel. A few years ago, the—then, a few years ago, the Court of Appeals of Maryland held that the jury instructions, which were typically given in trials in the early 1970s—in fact, up until 1980—were unconstitutional. Specifically, the judge told juries back then, and up until 1980, that the jury need not follow the instructions of the court, that the instructions are simply advisory, which means even though the judge told the jury that the prosecution had to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, for example, he also told the jury, "Well, you could ignore that instruction, and it’s up to you whether to vote guilty or not guilty."
Boyle continued, “And over the course of the last few months, we reached an agreement with the state’s attorney to resentence Mr. Conway to time served. And as a result of that agreement, he was released yesterday after… nearly 44 years in prison—actually, 43 years and 11 months.”
Conway, an Army veteran and postal worker, was arrested at his job while sorting mail. A policeman, Roger Nolan, claimed he exchanged gunshots with Conway in a dark alley in the vicinity of the Sager murder.
Conway told Democracy Now why he joined the Black Panthers. “I looked at all the different organizations, and the Black Panther Party represented at least a serious attempt to start feeding the children, to start educating the population, to start organizing healthcare and stuff like that. So I joined and started working with them,” said Conway.
“I think some of the most active people in the organization was targeted, followed around by the COINTELPRO, and opportunities were created with agent provocateurs or police informers, or even just incidents were created, that ultimately led to them destroying like 25 of our 37 state chapters in a period of 18 months. And they locked up the primary leadership, all the national leadership, or they chased them out of the country. And then they started focusing on the secondary leadership. At that time, I was considered part of the secondary leadership. And they pretty much locked us up or framed some of us or chased some of us out of the country….But by the time we found out that COINTELPRO was out there and operating, pretty much the Black Panther Party had been destroyed.”
Noam Chomsky has studied COINTELPRO and commented, “COINTELPRO, which you mentioned, is actually the worst systematic and extended violation of basic civil rights by the federal government. It maybe compares with Wilson’s Red Scare. But COINTELPRO went on from the late ’50s right through all of the ’60s; it finally ended, at least theoretically ended, when the courts terminated it in the early ’70s. And it was serious.”
Chomsky blamed the FBI for the “Gestapo-style assassination of two black organizers, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, literally.”
“I mean, the FBI set up the assassination. The Chicago police actually carried it out, broke into the apartment at 4:00 in the morning and murdered them. Fake information that came from the FBI about arms stores and so on. There was almost nothing about it. In fact, the information about this, remarkably, was released at about the same time as Watergate. I mean, as compared. And in this case, this is a case of justice being done, even though it’s delayed.
Conway’s attorney, Robert Boyle, commented: “Eddie went to trial at a time when COINTELPRO was still active and the jury did not know that there was this campaign to neutralize the leadership and the organization of the Black Panther Party. And so, he—although it was presented—tried to be presented at trial that there was this campaign of neutralization and people being framed up, we and his lawyers at the time lacked the information to do so. So, this has to be looked at in that context, and also in the context that many of the victims of COINTELPRO, you know, remain in prison today. Many, many—there are former members of the Black Panther Party who have been in jail for 40 years or more.
"There was a de facto war being waged between the police and the black community," Boyle explained. "Eddie Conway was a well-known person in the Baltimore Black Panthers. If it wasn't Eddie, it was going to be someone else from the Party."
The prosecution also relied on a jailhouse informant named Charles Reynolds, who testified that Conway detailed the crime to him as they sat together in a cell, including a little-known detail about a watch stolen from the wounded police officer.
Supporters have focused on the idea that Conway was set up and Nolan misidentified the man he was chasing. The Panthers at the time were under surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s COINTELPRO, a clandestine war on political activists waged by J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover’s role in the case remains shrouded, the result of shredded and redacted COINTELPRO memoranda.
In 2001, the Baltimore City Council passed a resolution urging Governor Parris Glendening to pardon Conway, calling him a political prisoner innocent of murder. The governor ignored the resolution.
Conway’s case is eerily like that of Ed Poindexter in Nebraska. Poindexter is half of the Omaha Two, Black Panther leaders imprisoned for the murder of a police officer. Mondo we Langa (formerly David Rice) was Poindexter’s co-defendant in the April 1971 trial that convicted them for the murder of Omaha police officer Larry Minard, Sr.
Like Conway, Poindexter was an Army veteran turned postal worker. For both men Black Panther activities had to be squeezed in around the shifts at the post office.
In Conway’s case there was no direct physical evidence linking him to the murder. In Poindexter’s case there was no direct physical evidence linking him to the murder.
However, the two cases have a sharp distinction. In Conway’s case, J. Edgar Hoover’s role remains unclear, forever shrouded by shredded paper. In Poindexter’s case, Hoover’s role is documented in FBI reports. Hoover gave the command to withhold a laboratory report from the FBI Crime Laboratory on the identify of the anonymous 911 caller who lured Minard to his death by bombing in a vacant house.. Hoover gave the order to let a killer get away with murder in order to pin the crime on Ed Poindexter and Mondo we Langa.
Ed Poindexter and Mondo we Langa remain incarcerated in the maximum-security Nebraska State Penitentiary, serving life sentences, while they continue to deny any involvement in the death of Minard.
There is one other difference between Conway’s case and that of Poindexter.. Maryland courts are willing to correct past mistakes. Nebraska courts are not.
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