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Bear Lincoln Case Finally Over

by Nicholas Wilson

on Bear Lincoln story
UKIAH -- Supporters of Bear Lincoln were jubilant Friday as they heard a judge dismiss the last charge against him, ending his four-year ordeal over capital murder charges of a deputy sheriff.

Bear Lincoln Deputy Attorney General Michael O'Reilley told Mendocino County Superior Court judge John Golden on April 23 that his office had reviewed the case and decided that "at this time the charge cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and I would move to dismiss." The judge immediately dismissed the manslaughter charge "in the interest of justice." The Lincoln supporters who filled the small courtroom to capacity could barely contain themselves, and cheering erupted when the brief hearing was over.

"I feel really good. I feel like a load has been lifted. I don't know, it hasn't really set in yet, the full impact," Lincoln said in the hallway.

"When he said there was no evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, I could only just sit back and thank God. It's still sinking in to me even yet, but I'm very happy. It's something we've been very patient for. We waited and we went through their process. I hope law enforcement is satisfied; we did it their way. This is their court. It's not my court. It's their system, not mine. So we did it according to their laws, they way they wanted it, and I was acquitted. They're probably not happy about that, but that's the way they wanted it, we did it their way, and the truth came out."

Asked if he expected this outcome, Lincon remarked, "I was expecting a dismissal because the A.G.'s office never really had anything to work with. There was no evidence in the beginning. I never should have been tried, and I never should have spent one day in jail. And so the logical thing to do would be to dismiss it. You can't count on law enforcement to be logical, but in this case they were kind of forced to be.

"They didn't have anything in the file; no evidence against me. There was a lot of evidence of a police cover-up, a mass cover-up. There was evidence of a police ambush, police murder, police brutality, police perjury, law enforcement tampering with the jury. It just goes on and on. That's the only evidence that there really was. That's why it was dismissed today; they were forced to dismiss. If they had just one thing, one shred of evidence they probably would have gone on. But it was dismissed and it's been a good day for dismissal. So we're really happy; I and everyone here, supporters and friends, we're overwhelmed."

Cyndi Pickett, Peters' partner commented, "I always believed that we were ultimately going to win this thing. There was never any doubt in my heart and mind that when it played all out, the truth was going to stand in front of everything, that Bear was going to be exonerated, and the truth that the police ambushed Bear and Acorn, that they did fire first -- I knew that people were going to see that and that it was going to come out. I've become such a skeptic that I halfway felt that they were just going to continue it today. But, of course, I've never been happier to be wrong."

Bias of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat became an issue in its own right
On September 23, 1997 a jury acquitted Lincoln, a Wailaki-Concow resident of the Round Valley Indian Reservation, of murder in the April 14, 1995 shooting deaths of Mendocino County Sheriff's Deputy Bob Davis and Bear's friend Peters, who was killed by Davis. The jury hung 10-2 for acquittal on the lesser charge of manslaughter.

The slanted coverage of the Lincoln case by the region's dominant daily newspaper, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, became an issue in its own right. Two Monitor editorials at the time, "Drop the Bias, Press Democrat" and "Bitter Victory," noted that the newspaper took every opportunity to portray Lincoln as guilty. Some of it was done with language, such as always branding Lincoln as the "accused cop-killer." Bias was also shown by incomplete reporting, including writing at length about 1995 statements given to authorities, but not sworn testimony in court that repudiated those early statements. The most serious ethical violation, however, was the paper's selective coverage that skipped crucial parts of the trial favoring Lincoln's case. Omitted from its reports were days of crucial testimony and evidence that suggested a police conspiracy.

Because the jury couldn't agree on the manslaughter charge, a retrial was possible if the district attorney wished to pursue a conviction. While a retrial would be unlikely in most cases where the jury leaned so strongly toward acquittal, this high-profile case of an Indian charged with capital murder of a law enforcement officer was heavily politicized. Then- D.A. Susan Massini announced on the eve of her campaign for reelection that she would retry Lincoln.

Massini lost the election to Norman Vroman, a Libertarian, who had said when questioned during the campaign, that based on what he knew of the case he would not be inclined to retry Lincoln, but that he couldn't really say until he saw the case files. After losing the election, Massini referred the case to the Attorney General's office of Republican lame-duck Dan Lungren for possible prosecution by the state.

She falsely claimed Vroman had flatly promised not to retry Bear if elected, and that this was an abuse of discretion that justified the intervention of the A.G. In January, at a hearing to set a trial date, O'Reilly, a holdover from the Lungren administration, told the judge he needed more time to study the files before he could decide whether to proceed with retrial or drop the charges.

O'Reilley was reluctant to comment after Friday's hearing, but did let slip that he was not happy with the outcome. He told reporters, "This is not a determination on our part that the defendant is innocent; it is simply a determination that at the present time the charge cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt." Lincoln's defense co-counsel Phil DeJong disagreed: " This case was really over in September of 1997. All this was today was the last gasp of Susan Massini's putrified administration."

D.A. Norman Vroman commented, "I'm very happy that this painful chapter in Mendocino County's history is closed. I look forward now to a healing process. If a similar case comes up in the future, I hope to handle it in a professional competent manner."

J. Tony Serra comments
Lincoln's well-known lead attorney J. Tony Serra was unable to be in court due to an appearance in another case, but he told the Monitor by phone, "My heart was in Mendocino. I'm delighted that Bear is vindicated. For all the Indians who have trusted the judicial system and lost, it offers new hope for them." Serra said that as he drove to Modesto for the other hearing he had pondered the Lincoln case, and that he had expected it would be dismissed.

Serra offered this analyis: " I could not believe that it would go any other way, because there were so many factors. First and foremost it was just improper, so, karmically it had to be dismissed. The second thing is it would override the electorate, because they had elected a new district attorney whose platform, partly, was to dismiss, and then that was usurped by a lame-duck D.A. who handed it up to the lame-duck A.G. That was a very unwholesome move, very suspicious and ugly. The third thing is that the new A.G., Bill Lockyer, in his attitude toward fulfillment of Prop. 215, medical marijuana, has been pretty good. So I thought that this would fit into the same image that he wants to propagate, and it would be politically wise for him to do it. Lastly, at the pragmatic zone, they would not have won, and they may not have seated a jury. The community now is more polarized and their views are more firm, and therefore it would be very difficult to find an open-minded jury. And so ultimately, it was my view that if they chose to go forward we would have to move it to another county with all the attendant costs. So you're going to bankrupt the county to pursue a futility. I put all those factors in my mind as I drove the opposite direction that morning."

Serra said he was sorry to miss the climax of what he called a major case. "I wasn't able to be there to get that final word that makes you feel good, and that's twice on major cases that I wasn't able to be there when the case ultimately got dumped." The first time was when a D.A. dismissed a murder case against Black Panther co-founder Huey Newton in the late '60s or early '70s after a jury split 11-1 for acquittal. Asked if he put the Bear Lincoln case in the same category of major cases as the Newton case, he replied, "Sure. Any time when it's death penalty, especially when it's a minority person, regardless of the motivation of the prosecution or how bad the case is, you know, you could lose. So to win a death penalty case is always major in any context."

Because for much of the Lincoln case Serra was under a gag rule forbidding comment on the case, the Monitor asked for his overall judgment of the case in retrospect: "My opinion is it was always over-amped. Let's pretend that investigators believed the officer (deputy Miller), even with all the suppressed evidence and the misstatements that there had been some provocation. It was never more than manslaughter. Giving them every benefit of the doubt about what occurred, it was never more than manslaughter. Therefore to charge death penalty and to create such antipathy where he could have been killed if he hadn't surrendered directly is an act of racism. To overcharge it, and to try with false press releases to whip up that part of the community that would have shot him on sight, that's an act of racism.

"Obviously, if you don't give them the benefit of the doubt, in terms of their good faith, then it's even far more ugly. What they want to do is to cover-up, by prosecuting someone falsely, their own misdeeds, and that would be the worst possible thing any law enforcement agency could do. We said that at the beginning, that it was a cover-up, this was a police murder, and they sought to cover it up by an act of racism, charging an innocent person with a death penalty case just to cover, ultimately, what was their own wrongdoing."

"My friend was murdered by law enforcement, but they don't have to answer for that"
When Lincoln was asked how it felt to be absolutely free of all charges, he replied, "Well, I'm absolutely free, but I don't really feel that. The battle is still there with law enforcement. I believe if they caught me at the wrong place at the wrong time I'd probably be shot to death, you know, or beaten to death. And so the battle isn't over, and I don't feel 100 percent free. Maybe I will later, but with all the police brutality and murder going on how can any of us be free, you know, 100 percent free? We just have to come together and be strong and stand against corrupt law enforcement."

Lincoln is still bothered that his close friend, Leonard "Acorn" Peters, who had committed no crime, was killed by the deputies. Lincoln said, "I'd like to see an investigation, but I don't think that's going to happen because law enforcement doesn't prosecute their own. They're on the same side. My friend was murdered by law enforcement, but they don't have to answer for that. I'm not satisfied with his death. He was killed by police officers; they came to my reservation and committed first degree murder, in my opinion, and they're getting away with it. I'd like something to happen. I'll continue to speak out against police brutality, police murder. We've been seeing like in New York with Amadou Diallo, and with Tyisha Miller in Riverside, just murdered by the police for no reason. It just happens over and over again, but there's more publicity coming out, and law enforcement is being exposed to the public. And so I'll be doing as much as I can to expose corrupt law enforcement and to help as many people as I can."

Lincoln said he wants to thank the people who supported him and who sent him letters. "It's been really good for my morale; it helped to keep me stronger and to be patient, to deal with this case over the last four years. I want to thank everyone and I'm very grateful," he said.

Asked how his life is going now, Lincoln replied that he is raising and breeding his Appaloosa horses. "With this good spring weather I'm ready to grow some good organic vegetables again, and go back to being a peaceful organic vegetable farmer."

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Albion Monitor April 26, 1999 (

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