04/16/2006

Second defendant standing trial in 1970 killing of Minn. officer

By STEVE KARNOWSKI
Associated Press Writer

ST. PAUL, Minn.- Larry Clark's murder trial will have elements of a history lesson, taking jurors back nearly 36 years to a time of black militancy and civil strife, a time when police officers were sometimes targets.

It hardly seems distant, however, to Dan Bostrom, a former police sergeant who saw Officer James Sackett on the ground, mortally wounded by a sniper as he responded to a fake call about a woman in labor. Bostrom cried in the courtroom last month when Clark's co-defendant, Ronald Reed, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

"It's amazing how long ago this was, but it seems like it was just yesterday," said Bostrom, who was Sackett's sergeant and is now a City Council member. "Having been there the night it happened, struggling for years with no closure to this, we're looking for closure. That's the biggest thing."

The youngest of Sackett's four children was born just three weeks before the 27-year-old officer died May 22, 1970, in what a prosecutor in Reed's case called a "cold-blooded assassination."

Opening statements were scheduled for Monday in Clark's trial on charges of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. Reed was convicted of the same charges March 1.

The men, both now 55, were longtime suspects. Authorities reopened the investigation after a witness ended decades of silence and said Reed told her to make the fake call that lured Sackett to his death.

Sackett, who was white, was killed at a time of racial unrest across the country. Many cities had been hit by rioting, including St. Paul and Minneapolis, and many blacks saw police as oppressors.

Prosecutors allege that Sackett was shot because the defendants, then 19, wanted to impress leaders of the militant Black Panther Party and start a local chapter.

Reed and Clark, who are black, had been friends and local activists. Clark had led a sit-in at St. Paul Central High School in 1968 and was suspended from school the next year for selling a Black Panther publication there.

Five months after Sackett's death, Reed and Clark were involved in a bank robbery in Omaha, Neb., in which a police officer was wounded; both were sent to prison for the crime.

Reed eventually settled in Chicago, where he worked as a pipefitter. Clark returned to the Twin Cities, where he was living in a homeless shelter before his arrest.

Prosecutors have been vague about who pulled the trigger, but under the law all they need to prove is that Clark aided and abetted the killing, and that he conspired with Reed. Much of the evidence in Reed's trial is expected to be presented against Clark, but the case poses some new challenges to both sides.

In Reed's trial, prosecutors portrayed him as the mastermind and Clark as a co-conspirator. This trial will have to focus on Clark's alleged role in planning the killing, but prosecutors have said relatively little so far about what they believe he did the night Sackett died.

Prosecutors' star witness in Reed's trial could cause them trouble in Clark's.

Connie Trimble-Smith, Reed's ex-girlfriend and the mother of his child, testified in Reed's case that Reed persuaded her to make the call that lured Sackett to his death, and then drove her to Clark's home near the crime scene. But she also testified that she thought Reed was innocent and had been set up.

It also emerged that authorities had given Trimble-Smith $3,700 to help pay for rent and medicine, and that she used some of the money to buy crack cocaine.

Trimble-Smith was acquitted in 1972 for her role in the case, but she spent time in jail for refusing to divulge who told her to make the call. Only recently did she break her silence and help police crack the case.

Race resurfaced as an issue when Clark's attorneys asked Ramsey County Chief District Judge Gregg Johnson to assemble a new jury pool because only one of the 65 prospective jurors is black. Johnson kept the existing jury pool after being assured by the county's jury manager that the 65 were chosen at random; the county is about 6 percent black.

Earl Gray, a local defense attorney not involved with either case, said he suspects the case against Clark is not as solid as Reed's because prosecutors always try their strongest case first. Gray questioned whether Clark can get an impartial jury in St. Paul, given the heavy publicity Reed's trial and conviction received.

"Obviously they're all going to know. ... Who wouldn't have heard about this?" he said.

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