Jury reconvenes in SD reservation slaying case

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

A jury began its second day of deliberations in the case of a man charged in the 1975 slaying of an American Indian Movement activist.

John Graham, 55, is accused of shooting Annie Mae Aquash and leaving her to die on the Pine Ridge reservation. Aquash’s death remains linked with the clashes between AIM and federal agents during the 1970s.

Jurors began discussing the case after attorneys made their closing arguments. They broke for the day after about four hours of discussion.

Graham faces first- and second-degree murder charges. He could receive life in prison if convicted on the most serious charge.

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.

looking_cloud.jpgIn closing arguments, Graham’s attorney, John Murphy, 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. 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 also dismissed a defense theory that Graham was taking Aquash to a safe house at her request as “a stupid notion.” And he 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.

Murphy told jurors that Looking Cloud’s testimony was the only evidence linking Graham to the place where Aquash is believed to have died. During the trial, he accused Looking Cloud of embellishing his story and treating Graham like a “meal ticket” to an easier prison sentence. He spent much of his closing argument renewing that attack, calling Looking Cloud “pathetic,” “strung-out” and a “pathological liar.”

Murphy also pointed to conflicts between the testimony of other witnesses and their previous statements.

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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