No verdict yet in 1975 reservation slaying trial

By Nomaan Merchant
Rapid City, South Dakota (AP) December 2010

Jurors deciding the fate of a man charged in the 1975 slaying of an American Indian Movement activist finished their first day of deliberations last week without a verdict.

John Graham, 55, is accused of shooting Annie Mae Aquash and leaving her to die on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge reservation in December 1975. Prosecutors allege that Graham and two other AIM members kidnapped and killed Aquash because they thought she was a government spy in a case that became synonymous with the 1970s clashes between American Indian activists and federal agents.

Graham, a Southern Tutchone Indian from Canada, is charged with two counts of murder and could receive life in prison if convicted.

Jurors discussed the case for about four hours after attorneys made their closing arguments.

Graham’s attorney told jurors that prosecutors hadn’t provided evidence beyond the testimony of “pathological liar” Arlo Looking Cloud, who was convicted in Aquash’s murder six years ago and is serving life in prison. Looking Cloud testified that he stood nearby as Graham shot Aquash.

Prosecutor Rod Oswald told jurors they should find Graham guilty even if they weren’t sure he pulled the trigger.

“He was, at the very least, an aider and abettor to both counts of murder,” Oswald said.

Oswald noted trial testimony from witnesses who said they saw Graham, Looking Cloud and another AIM supporter, Theda Clark, tie Aquash’s hands and place her in the back of a red Ford Pinto. The three then took Aquash from Denver toward the Pine Ridge reservation, Oswald said.

Oswald dismissed a defense theory that Graham was taking Aquash to a safe house at her request.

“It’s a stupid notion, just plain stupid,” he said.

Oswald also reminded jurors that two federal agents said Graham became nervous and talked about going to jail after they asked him about the murder in 1994.

Graham’s attorney, John Murphy, renewed his criticisms of Looking Cloud, who he previously accused of embellishing his story and treating Graham like a “meal ticket” to an easier prison sentence. During an hour-long speech that followed Oswald’s closing argument, Murphy called Looking Cloud “pathetic,” “strung-out” and a “pathological liar.”

He argued that Looking Cloud’s testimony was the only evidence linking Graham to the place where Aquash is believed to have died. Her body was found in February 1976.

Murphy – who called no witnesses before resting his case – also pointed to conflicts between the testimony of other witnesses and their previous statements.

“You deserve better quality evidence than what was presented here,” Murphy told jurors.

Lead prosecutor Marty Jackley, the state attorney general, was the last to speak. Jackley called some of Murphy’s criticisms “disingenuous.”

“Every step of the way is John Graham,” Jackley said.

Before the trial began, observers said they hoped for new evidence to emerge about why Aquash died and who in AIM might have ordered her killing. Several witnesses said Aquash was suspected of being a government spy, which authorities have since denied.

But a number of expected prosecution witnesses – including Thelma Rios, who pleaded guilty in November in connection with Aquash’s kidnapping, and Serle Chapman, a British writer who interviewed Graham – didn’t take the stand. And former AIM leaders listed as witnesses before the trial also didn’t testify.

AIM was founded in the late 1960s to protest the U.S. government’s treatment of American Indians and demand the government honor its treaties with Indian tribes. It gained national attention in 1972, when it took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington, but the activist group has since faded from public view.

Aquash, a member of the Mi’kmaq tribe of Nova Scotia, was 30 when she died. Her death came about six months after two FBI agents were killed during a shootout with AIM members on Pine Ridge, and two years after she participated in AIM’s 71-day occupation of the South Dakota reservation town of Wounded Knee.

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