Man convicted in 1970 cop killing gets new trial

(AP) - The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the conviction of a man charged in the ambush slaying of a St. Paul police officer in 1970 and ordered a new trial.

The court ruled Thursday that a Ramsey County District judge gave improper instructions to the jury two years ago about testimony from an accomplice of Larry L. Clark.

The court ruled the judge should have instructed the jury that under Minnesota law a criminal conviction cannot be based on the uncorroborated testimony of an accomplice.

It's generally up to the jury to determine whether accomplice testimony was properly validated at trial.

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"We ... conclude that reversal of Clark's conviction is necessary in the case to ensure fairness and integrity of the judicial process," according to the majority opinion.

"Accordingly we hold that the court committed plain error when it failed to give the accomplice jury instruction and that Clark's convictions must therefore be reversed on this basis."

A spokeswoman for the Ramsey County attorney's office could not comment Thursday morning as she had not read the verdict.

Clark was convicted in 2006 of first-degree premeditated murder while aiding another and was sentenced to life in prison. He was 55 at the time.

During the trial, prosecutors portrayed Clark as the right-hand man of Ronald Reed, who was convicted two months earlier of first-degree murder and conspiracy charges.

Prosecutors argued that Reed and Clark, who are black, wanted to kill a white police officer to impress the national leadership of the Black Panther Party.

The evidence showed Officer James Sackett was lured to a St. Paul address on May 22, 1970, by a fake emergency call, then shot in the chest from a distance.

The accomplice testimony in question before the Supreme Court was from Reed's former girlfriend, Constance Trimble-Smith.

She testified that at Reed's urging she made the fake emergency call that lured Sackett to his death. Trimble-Smith testified they then drove straight to Clark's house - just 102 yards from the crime scene - where Clark was waiting outside in a raincoat.

In the majority opinion, the justices noted that the details of Trimble-Smith's account of the events of that night had changed between her testimony to a grand jury and during Reed's and Clark's trials.

In a dissent, Justice Alan Page argued that without Trimble-Smith's testimony there wasn't enough evidence to convict Clark.

"I would reverse Clark's conviction outright and not remand for a new trial," he wrote.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)