The Trial of Bear Lincoln

Revolutionary Worker #924, September 21, 1997

The prosecution and the defense have rested in the trial of Eugene "Bear" Lincoln. Closing arguments in the case are scheduled for September 15, and the case is scheduled to go to the jury midweek. Bear Lincoln, a Wailaki Indian, is facing the death penalty. He has gotten broad support from Native People and progressives throughout northern California and his arrest and trial have exposed the racist brutality of the Mendocino County Sheriffs against Native People.

The charges against Bear stem from an incident on April 14, 1995 in Round Valley about 250 miles north of the San Francisco Bay Area. Sheriff's deputies ambushed Bear and his lifelong friend, Leonard "Acorn" Peters. Acorn was murdered by the deputies. One of the deputies was also killed, most likely by "friendly fire" from the M-16 automatic weapon that his partner was shooting. (For more on Bear Lincoln's case see RW #914 and #917.)

Bear is being tried in front of an all white jury. The prosecution used its peremptory challenges to dismiss three Native People and two other oppressed nationalities from the jury. Racism against Native People is widespread in this part of northern California. The mainstream media painted Bear as "a violent cop-killer" and parroted the prosecution's version of what happened. As the case neared trial, Judge Golden issued a gag order which has hindered the defense's ability to get its story out broadly.

Bear Testifies

The highlight of the trial occurred on September 4 when Bear testified. Answering questions from defense attorney Tony Serra, Bear told how he and his friend Leonard left Bear's cabin at about 9:00 p.m. on April 14. A short while earlier they had learned that there had been a shooting at the local high school, that an Indian man named Gene Britton had been killed and that Acorn's brother Arylis had been involved. Acorn was worried about his brother and wanted to find him. They were also worried about retaliation by members of the Britton family and they carried weapons for protection.

There is a long-running dispute between members of the Britton family and the Lincoln and Peters families. The Lincolns and Peters are among families on the reservation that are trying to revive long-suppressed indigenous culture and spirituality. The Brittons are among the more assimilated. Many Round Valley residents claim that a pattern of discriminatory law enforcement--police bias in favor of the Brittons and against the Lincolns and Peters--contributed to the dispute.

Bear testified he was walking about 20 to 25 feet behind Leonard on the dirt road that connects Little Valley, where Bear's family and a few other families live, and the Round Valley reservation. Bear testified that as he approached the top of the ridge where the sheriffs were hiding, he heard and saw nothing--no uniforms, no police car, no light, and he heard no voice warning "Sheriff's Department, drop the gun," as Deputy Dennis Miller had testified earlier in the trial. Bear testified that he only heard Acorn say, "Oh, fuck" and then there was a barrage of gunfire and Acorn fell to the ground.

Bear said that at that point he did not know it was the sheriffs who had killed his friend, Acorn. "I thought that it was the Brittons who were hiding up there and had ambushed him and killed him," Bear told the jury. Bear said that he fired off several rounds in self defense from the weapon that he was carrying--not firing at anything in particular. Running for his life, Bear jumped off the edge of the road and went on a little trail to a creek near an old cabin. Bear said that as he hid by the creek he was "in fear for my life, shocked, scared." "It was hard to believe what had taken place. I told myself a few times that this is really happening. I was kind of in shock, I guess."

Bear testified that it soon became real quiet and he thought that whoever had shot his friend Acorn had left. Bear then felt that he had to go check on his friend. "I couldn't leave my friend there. I didn't know if he was dead or alive but I couldn't leave him there." Bear said that he made his way back to the road and again there was another barrage of bullets. "It sounded like automatic weapons going off continuously. There were bullets flying by me."

Bear said that at this point he returned fire. Bear shot from the hip with no target. He kept pulling the trigger but was out of bullets after a single shot. Bear testified that he jumped off the road and lay low in the brush. The gunfire continued and then stopped. He heard a voice yell out "10-99." "It made me confused," Bear said. "It was the first voice I heard and it sounded like a police call. I thought that maybe there were police and Brittons there together." After that Bear ran down the road to his mother's house to warn her that people on the ridge might come down and try to kill everybody. "Acorn was murdered right in front of me for no reason and I expected them to continue."

Miller's Tale

Bear's testimony is very different than the testimony of Deputy Miller, the prosecution's star witness. Bear's supporters think that it was friendly fire from Deputy Miller that killed his partner, Deputy Bob Davis.

Miller was assigned to Little Valley Road with Davis on the night of April 14, where they were attempting to find and surprise Arylis Peters, the suspect in the earlier murder of Gene Britton. According to Miller, he and Davis were staked out at the top of the ridge, saw two figures walking up the road and Davis said three times in a loud voice, "Put the gun down, Sheriff's Department, drop the gun." Miller claims one of the men in the road fired first and that then both he and Davis fired numerous shots, killing Leonard. Miller said he grabbed the fully automatic M-16 rifle that belonged to Davis and that they then started walking down the road. When they heard some gunfire, Miller said he yelled to Davis, "Get down" and then fired several rounds on automatic down the road. Miller said that at this point he tripped and fell down and when he got up his partner had been hit.

Miller claims he had stopped firing before he fell down. And he says that the tape recorder that he turned on during the incident got turned off when he fell off the edge of the road. But the tape recording ends abruptly with a sixth shot fired by Miller--which indicates that Miller was shooting as he fell down. And this points to the possibility that Davis was killed by "friendly fire" from Miller.

Miller was cross examined by Bear's lawyer, Tony Serra. Serra's questioning brought out numerous contradictions in Miller's story:

  • In his first statement, in the early morning of April 15, just a few hours after the events, Miller claimed he only saw one person coming up the hill. It was weeks later, after it was conclusively determined that Acorn's rifle had not been fired, that Miller changed his story and claimed he saw two men coming up the road. Commenting on how Miller seems to remember more things about the incident as time goes on Serra said, "So, like wine your memory improves with age?"
  • Miller claimed he and Davis were not hiding on the ridge and that their vehicles were in clear view. This is important to the prosecution's case against Bear because they need to establish that Bear knew that the people confronting and shooting at him were police. However, Miller testified that they had driven the last part of their approach to the hilltop with their lights out and that they parked their vehicle up a fire road that forks off from the main road. Miller also testified that they were hoping to take Arylis by surprise.
  • Serra also questioned Miller about a trail of blood leading from the top of the ridge to the gate of the Lincoln house in Little Valley. It has been determined that the blood drops, which occur every few feet down the hill, most likely belonged to Deputy Davis, who was shot in the hand before receiving a fatal head wound. This trail of blood is physical evidence that contradicts Miller's story which says nothing about Davis heading towards the Lincoln house. And it raises the possibility that Miller and a wounded Davis chased Bear Lincoln after killing Peters.
  • During his questioning, Serra directly accused Miller of ambushing and killing Leonard Peters and then attempting to hunt down Bear as a witness to the murder.

    Evidence of Racism and Brutality

    The prosecution called Bear's mother, Lucille Lincoln, whose powerful testimony backfired on the prosecution and revealed the brutal way that the Sheriff's Department treats Native People on the reservation.

    Lucille lives in Little Valley, down the hill from the ridge where the ambush took place. On April 14, 1995 Lucille was asleep when her granddaughter came to tell her that there was shooting up on the hill. Lucille, fearing that members of the Britton family were coming to take revenge for the earlier killing, decided to get her family together and out of the isolated valley. She gathered her family members, including four small babies, into her truck. Lucille testified that as she was getting ready to leave Bear came running up to the house and told her how Leonard and he had been ambushed and that Leonard had been killed. Bear warned her not to go up the road because "they will kill you." Lucille saw no other way to escape, since she had arthritis and couldn't make it out on foot.

    As her truck neared the top of the ridge she came upon Leonard's body lying in the middle of the road. Suddenly she heard voices from both sides of the road yelling at her: "Turn your fucking lights off; get you fucking hands up or we'll blow your fucking head off." The D.A. asked Lucille Lincoln whether she had known that the people talking to her were police. Lucille responded, "Yes, because of the way they talked." Her remark provoked laughter from many of the people in the courtroom who were familiar with the way Mendocino County Sheriffs talk to Native People.

    Lucille Lincoln also told the court how the police continued to use profanity and rough treatment against her and her family. She said that at one point the officers told her to walk faster. When she complained that she was crippled, Highway Patrol Officer Clarence Holmes said, "Fuck the cripple," and shoved her to the wet ground and handcuffed her. Lucille, who was 59 at the time of the incident, said that she was in pain and had bruises for days afterward.

    A Cover-Up?

    There has also been evidence that has come out at the trial that points to a cover-up by the Sheriffs and authorities.

  • A tree that was directly in the line of the deputies' fire was removed from the scene by the authorities. They now claim they don't have it.
  • There was no effort to protect the evidence. As many as 30 officers walked repeatedly through the area, kicking the shell casings whose placement is important to determine what actually happened. Measurements were taken not from fixed objects like trees but from cars, so that once the car was moved it would become impossible to accurately place the objects. There was no videotape made of the scene--something normally done in a serious investigation.
  • Witnesses described that the shooting on the ridge sounded "like a war zone" and said they heard a great deal more gunfire than can be explained by the stories of the police. In his opening statement Tony Serra said, "The shells found there do not correspond with what those witnesses say that they heard...if those shells disappeared you'd have a cover-up and if there's a cover-up what does it mean?"
  • Roy Gourley, the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department detective assigned to lead the investigation of the shootings on the ridge, has a history that would indicate bias. The investigation was handled by Sonoma County to avoid the appearance of a cover-up. During the trial it was revealed that Gourley had only one year of experience as a detective but that he had worked for 15 years as a Mendocino County Deputy and that he personally knew Miller, Davis and other officers involved. Gourley was the ONLY detective in Sonoma that had worked for 15 years in Mendocino County. If the authorities really wanted an impartial investigation, why was the detective with the MOST ties to the officers involved assigned to lead the investigation?
  • Support for Bear

    Supporters of Bear have mobilized for the trial. Many people are attending the trial. The Lincoln Peters Defense Alliance serves lunch to people who come to the trial and there is drumming every Monday outside the courthouse. People walk up and back in front of the courthouse with picket signs that expose the railroad. The nearby Native community of Coyote Valley has opened their doors and people have been able to camp overnight in their community so that they won't have to make the two-hour drive back to Round Valley. Cyndi Pickett, Leonard Peters' widow, told the RW, "I'm so encouraged by the way the community has come together in support of Bear."

    This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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