Albion Monitor

In the days since the verdict in the Bear Lincoln trial, I've probably looked at this picture a hundred times. Study it carefully -- I'll argue that Nicholas Wilson has captured the essense of the entire story in this single photograph.

First appreciate it as art: Like a great painting, it is a moment frozen. Lincoln tightly grips his sister and girlfriend, squeezing their hands white. His straight-shouldered posture centers your eye on his ribboned shirt, symbolic of his Native heritage. And despite the giddy excitement and public location, both Lincoln and attorney DeJong have the introspective look of being lost in deep conversation.

All great news photographs are also part of an important story and here, Lincoln is caught at a key point. Before this photo was taken, Mendocino County authorities had stalled his release on bail for hours, using petty excuses that the court clerk said were unprecedented. And just moments after this picture, an angry cop stood not ten feet away and jabbed his finger at Lincoln. "You lied with a forked tongue," the officer charged hatefully.

That racist confrontation, that police harassment inside the jail, both harken back to a dark era that most Americans would like to pretend no longer exists. But in some ways, Mendocino County is closer to Mississippi in 1955 than modern-day San Francisco, which is just three hours away.

Mendocino is a lovely place; if you've never visited, think of oak-shaded hills, mountain valleys dark with redwood. Living there are many caring citizens, active in bettering the environment and helping others. But also spread throughout the county are racists and self-styled cowboys. After the Lincoln verdict, a crank call to a radio station threatened that the Ku Klux Klan would mete out vigilante justice. False or no, it's been some time since I've heard threats of Klan activity in California.

Who runs Mendocino County? Although they have a Board of Supervisors, the real power is the Sheriff, who rules over the county with an iron whim. And even before the 1995 tragedy, the Sheriff's office had a rocky relationship with the Indian community. Fresh in memory was an incident just ten years ago, when a drunken deputy beat a Native youth almost to death.

Current Sheriff Jim Tuso was elected in 1990 as a reformer who promised better communication with the Round Valley Reservation. Although Tuso hired the first (and only) Native deputy, hopes faded quickly; by the night of the shootings, hostilities between police and and Natives were probably cold as ever.

Once Deputy Robert "Bob" Davis was killed, deep hatreds against Native people quickly surfaced. Police apparently suspected everyone on the reservation was part of a conspiracy to hide fugitive Bear Lincoln. It was cowboy time.

Events that followed were justly called a police riot. Word spread in Round Valley that officers slammed into homes with guns drawn. Elders were roughed up. Children were interrogated illegally. The community took the unusual step of issuing a press release that they were " in a state of terror ... at the hands of the Mendocino County police. Many households have felt it necessary to evacuate their children from the valley for fear of their safety...." When County Supervisors unanimously agreed with the Indian's plea for the Sheriff to abide by state and federal law, the next Board meeting was packed with police and their supporters, furious at that meek request.

After Bear Lincoln surrendered voluntarily, the police withdrew from Round Valley. There were no apologies. No amends. With Lincoln in custody, the Sheriff and his bunch waited for trial. They waited two long years, confident that Bear Lincoln would be sentenced to death for cop-killing.

Now that he's been found innocent, the police again rage.

As they were processing Lincoln's paperwork for his release on bail, it was okay for them to push him around with delays. As Lincoln celebrated his first moments of freedom, detective Al Tripp decided it was a good time to throw a little racist damper on the party. You have to wonder: is this all this is mean-spirited, bully stuff, or the edge of something more sinister?

And remember, these represent just problems within the Sheriff's department. In the community at large -- which is 90 percent white -- there are likely others with simmering rage and far fewer checks and balances on their behavior than professional police officers.

Mendocino County is a powderkeg. And into this volatile situation comes the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, recklessly making matters far worse.

If you haven't read Nicholas Wilson's guest editorial, "Drop the Bias, Press Democrat," I strongly suggest you see it now. It's a meaty piece that raises many serious ethical issues about the largest newspaper in the area, and which has provided the widest-read coverage of the case.

In brief: Wilson charged that the Press Democrat coverage was irresponsible. Every story had a decided spin to portray Lincoln as guilty. Some of it was done with language; Lincoln was always branded as the "accused cop-killer," for example. Some of the deed was done by half-truths -- writing at length about 1995 statements given to authorities, but not sworn testimony in court that repudiated those early statements.

More worrisome was the newspaper's decision to ignore whole chunks of the trial -- all of it favoring Lincoln's side. The newspaper didn't report on hours and hours of crucial testimony and evidence that showed Lincoln's likely innocence as well as evidence of police conspiracy.

These are very serious charges. To find an example of bias this severe in the mainstream American press, you'd probably have to reach back fifty years. If this sort of reporting appeared in a newspaper published in Iran, Singapore, or Burma, we'd smugly denounce it as the worst sort of dictatorship propaganda.

That bias is only part of the issue, sadly. In his September 12 editorial, Wilson also wrote:

Anyone relying only on the Press Democrat's coverage would be shocked at an acquittal, feeling that there had been a miscarriage of justice and that a "cop-killer" had gotten away with murder. They would grumble that Lincoln got off only because he had a slick lawyer, like O.J. Simpson. Or only because crucial facts were hidden from the jury, or because the judge was a liberal (he isn't). They would be unaware of evidence of Lincoln's innocence because the evidence simply didn't appear in the Press Democrat's pages. All of this might be enough for someone to justify taking the law into their own hands and attacking Lincoln.
Written before the verdict, Wilson's comments were prescient. As Lincoln says in his Monitor interview, he interpreted the "forked tounge" confrontation outside the jail as a death threat.

Since the verdict, has the Press Democrat changed? The answer is YES -- they've stepped up their attack.

A lengthy mid-September Sunday overview piece (printed two days after Wilson's editorial in the Monitor) told the same one-sided tale that P-D readers already knew. No mention was made of the trail of blood that apparently belonged to the slain deputy, or any of the other significant evidence the paper had ignored as it surfaced in testimony.

The newspaper emphasized that the trial was a test of credibility between Lincoln and Deputy Miller, the only survivors of the firefight. Although conceding that Miller had changed his version of events, the article closes with four paragraphs of tribute to Miller, whose friends and former colleagues were angered by any suggestion of perjury by the 18-year veteran cop who is "too smart" and "too good." Twice Deputy Miller's testimony is described as emotional.

Lincoln also received four (smaller) paragraphs of tribute -- followed by a much longer recounting of his 1979 felony conviction, which the court had ruled was irrelevant to this case. Irrelevant or not, it gave the P-D the chance to once again rehash his childbeating conviction (of which he was quite possibly innocent). It also gave the newspaper the chance to reprint part of a 1979 psychiatric report that said Lincoln as a young man had drug and alcohol problems as well as "a lot of hate inside."

Reading that, who sounds like the most credible person -- Miller or Lincoln?

Also in that article was sympathy for Sheriff Tuso: "...the events that night remain almost unbearable. He still mourns the loss of Davis, a personal friend." The Press Democrat notes Tuso's "efforts to rebuild law enforcement in the troubled valley" were also a victim of that tragic night. Sorry, Tuso, you can't pass the blame: the most damage between police and community relations was done by the police rampage that followed.

Lincoln's acquittal was the top story on September 24, and the newspaper offered two stories. In both, prominent was police emotion.

Tuso and the prosecutor were described as "devastated" by the jury's finding. An anonymous "veteran law enforcement officer" was quoted: "two men were killed that night, including a very good deputy, and no one is being held accountable." The paper notes that "...some deputies were bound to be extremely upset, [but] others had been braced for the possibility that Lincoln might go free." An account is also given of Al Tripp's confrontation of Lincoln. "'This is wrong. This is wrong,' Tripp said, tears in his eyes. 'This guy should not walk.'" The paper said Tripp continued, "This is wrong. Nobody cares how we feel. We're human beings."

Media criticism aside, let's assume for just one moment that the Press Democrat's coverage was truthful and unbiased. Doesn't it bother you that Mendocino law enforcement officers are continually described as emotionally distressed?

Emotion was again the theme in an October 1 interview with prosecutor Aaron Williams. "People getting away with murder is a cliche, but in this case that man got away with it. It sickens me...In my mind, the verdicts only compound the tragedy that occurred that night." Williams was "floored" by the jury's unanimous acquittal, which of what he thought was a "clear-cut case."

Then why did he lose? The Press Democrat notes that Lincoln had a "12-member defense team led by J. Tony Serra, a flamboyant San Francisco criminal defense attorney with a taste for high-profile cases." The prosecutor concedes that "Serra's courtoom dominance was unmistakable at times" but feels Serra's career is also built on "his willingness to orchestrate what happens outside and in the media." By contrast, Williams says he wins in court "because I've always been straight with a jury."

That article catches Williams making serious ethical gaffes; trial lawyers can't insult juries, even when they lose. (It's a good thing he's moving overseas because he's likely to be censured by the California Bar Association for these remarks.) His comments, though, neatly provide readers with the "O.J. Simpson" excuse for the verdict. The slick city lawyer cheated justice.

That theme of justice denied returns a couple of days later, with a prominent interview with the widow of Deputy Davis. Fighting tears and standing before a patriotic shrine to late husband, she calls the jury's verdict a "major miscarriage of justice" and says, "It's hard for me to believe we were sitting in the same courtroom." Besides being a war hero and father, we learn that Davis once jumped into a river to save an entangled bird. And that Davis certainly wasn't racist because he had a grandmother that was "a full-blooded Cherokee," although he didn't "pretend to be a member of the Indian culture."

In sum: within ten days following the verdict, the Press Democrat has presented four articles with quotes that were almost interchangable. Lincoln got away with murder. The death of a good cop will not be avenged. The verdict was injust and makes no sense.

But the P-D ran another piece during that time: a Sept. 25 editorial that asks -- incredibly -- for an end to hate and violence. "Everyone involved should lower his or her voice, turning away from the temptation to attacks that might incite further violence from unstable individuals," the editorial proclaimed.

If the hypocrisy there doesn't make you seethe, I urge you to seek professional help.

Four other stories on the Lincoln case appeared in that time, and some are worth noting -- not so much for what is stated, but for what is left unsaid.

Two articles appeared the same day as that hypocritical editorial. Lincoln faces some risk if he returns to the Round Valley Indian Reservation, one article read. The Britton clan, instrumental in setting off the 1995 events, were "generally displeased" by the verdict, and one family member ominously said Lincoln might "bring trouble on his family."

True enough, but that's only half the story. Perhaps more important is that before the 1995 tragedy, Leonard "Acorn" Peters tried repeatedly to file a police complaint against a member of the Britton family as hostilities escalated, but was ignored. And the reason Lincoln and Peters were carrying rifles on that lonely country road at night was because they had no faith that the Sheriff would protect the community from expected Britton family violence. The real question that must be answered: Given that history and the prejudicial statments from law enforcement since the verdict, can Bear Lincoln expect the Sheriff to rein in vengeful members of the Britton family?

Another article appearing on Sept. 25 offered passing explanations for the verdict -- the only stab at analysis that has appeared in the P-D. The reasons: All the evidence was mostly circumstantial, and Miller had slightly altered his story. "It's awfully hard for a jury to believe changing accounts even if they are given by a deputy," said a former county prosecutor. While Miller's shifting story is certainly a part of the reason, interviews with jurors show far more important causes.

Readers learned some of those reasons in an article headlined: "Five jurors join rally for Lincoln," describing the press conference held October 2. Juror Dorene Burdick, who has become the spokesperson for the group, listed reasons for their verdict. Top on their list: renegade cops.

"[Davis and Miller] pursued Bear, rather than going for cover," Burdick told the crowd. "They pursued him across the intersection and down the road. It was not a situation of everyone being in a dangerous position. Leonard Peters died, and Bear was the one fighting for his life. The sheriff's department was the one that created the war zone to begin with."

Her statements were toned down in the Press Demo report, and mention of the pursuit of Bear was removed. Even so, that's strong stuff. But what Press Democrat completely ignored was slashing criticism aimed at the P-D itself. Now that they could read media coverage of the case, jurors were angered by the newspaper's shoddy and biased reporting. And they were telling everyone within earshot of their feelings of betrayal by the newspaper.

Press Democrat readers also don't know about contempt charges against the D.A. for slipping information to the P-D in violation of the gag order. (That case is still pending.)

And subscribers to the Press Democrat have seen no commentary critical of their coverage -- not a single letter to the editor has been printed about the case for months. I wonder: How big is that stack of letters today? We know many have been written in protest.

As autumn creeps forward, we stand at crossroads.

Bear Lincoln has won a victory, but it has a bitter taste. What price freedom if he spends the rest of his life looking over his shoulder? Always waiting could be the rogue cop, the vengeful cowboy, the neighbor with a vendetta.

The other path offers some glimmer of hope, but requires great courage for Mendocino County: a full investigation must be made of wrongdoing by the Sheriff. In the 1987 trial of the beaten Native youth, jurors called for a Grand Jury investigation of the department. There should be a call now for a thorough inquiry of this powerful office.

A small sampling of topics to investigate:

  • Conspiracy in aid of the perjury of Deputy Miller
  • Conspiracy to release information in violation of court gag order (P-D reporter Geniella apparently had unresticted access to Davis' and Miller's personnel records)
  • Conspiracy in attempted jury tampering (Five documented cases)
  • Conspiracy to falsely accuse Lincoln with the murder of a police officer
  • Conspiracy to destroy evidence taken at the crime scene (What happened to those sawn-off branches?)
  • Conspiracy to murder Bear Lincoln (Alleged "shoot to kill" order, apparent pursuit of Lincoln down trail)
  • Conspiracy to violate civil rights in Round Valley during the Bear Lincoln manhunt
A thorough Grand Jury might even explore underlying causes of the conflict, such as why deputies would not take complaints against members of the Britton family.

In Mendocino County, that kind of investigation is probably a fantasy. At best, we can hope that Tuso will be replaced by another "reform" candidate in next year's election. (He's reportedly announced plans to retire to Idaho.) The District Attorney's office will also be up for election; perhaps Susan Massini's successor will be less pliant to the Sheriff's demands.

In the meantime, uneasy peace holds sway. Hopefully that peace will remain and emotions will quiet over time. But if violence should explode, point your finger at the office of Sheriff James Tuso -- and also give a full measure of guilt to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, for their shameful role in feeding the underlying hatred.

-- Jeff Elliott,
Editor, Albion Monitor
October 4, 1997

Albion Monitor issue 37 (

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