A collection of interesting South Dakota cases.

AuthorHaivala, Robert

This Article presents a collection of interesting South Dakota cases. It is not claimed, in this Article, that the most interesting cases are covered, or that any case is covered exhaustively. Nonetheless, the cases presented are interesting. South Dakota has a rich history of dramatic cases. This Article represents an effort to preserve some of that history.


    In 1968, the American Indian Movement (A.I.M.) was founded in Minneapolis. (1) Initially, the movement was formed to patrol Minneapolis and guard against police brutality towards Indians. (2) By 1973, the movement had grown nationwide. In February 1973, A.I.M. gained national attention for seizing the town of Wounded Knee for 71 days. (3) Wounded Knee is situated within the Oglala Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation, a Reservation which stretches 1 1/2 million acres. (4) Wounded Knee was seized by 200 armed A.I.M. members. (5) The A.I.M. protesters established roadblocks around Wounded Knee, (6) set up headquarters in a Catholic church, looted a trading post, and took eleven hostages, (7) all of whom were Indian residents of Wounded Knee. Russell Means, an A.I.M. leader and Oglala Sioux Tribe member, announced to the media: "We've got the whole Wounded Knee valley, and we definitely are going to hold it until death do us part." (8)

    The New York Times reported that, for much of the occupation, except for the danger present, the occupation was "like some strange carnival" with policemen by the hundreds surrounding the occupiers and hostages, the former who staged and restaged events for the media in their mobile campers. (9) During the occupation, chartered planes dropped supplies to the town and hundreds of media members "speaking dozens of languages," bunched over the reservation's headquarters, annoyed A.I.M.'s opponents and fought over the two telephones. (10)

    Two days after Means' statement to the press, amidst a backdrop of rental cars packed with reporters and camera crews, a helicopter carrying Senators James Abourezk and George McGovern of South Dakota and aides to Senators Edward Kennedy and J. William Fulbright descended upon the Movement. (11) Shortly before the Senators arrived, the hostages, including one with a severe heart condition, had been informed that they were free to leave. (12) All hostages were unharmed and made an apparent choice to remain in Wounded Knee. (13) After that, the Senators held a lengthy meeting with an "AIM spokesmen to discuss grievances." (14)

    A.I.M. called for an immediate investigation of the B.I.A. and for a renewed examination of treaties Indians entered into with the U.S. Government. (15) The A.I.M. members also called for the removal of Dick Wilson, Pine Ridge tribal council president. (16) Negotiations dragged on for weeks and at times were "held by an old teepee." (17) The hostages were freed and a tentative agreement was established April 5, but talks ultimately fell apart. (18) Negotiations resumed, focusing on disarmament, but they were disrupted by a vicious fire fight, which resulted in two A.I.M. members, Lawrence Lamont and Frank Clearwater, being fatally shot. Lloyd Grimm, one of the "more than 300 Federal agents" on scene, was paralyzed. (19)

    Subsequent to the fire fight, the Solicitor General of the Interior Department presented a letter to President Nixon. The letter reaffirmed a previous promise of a meeting between no less than five representatives of the White House and Oglala Sioux tribal elders if the occupiers left Wounded Knee by a certain date. (20) The elders, some of whom were supporters of A.I.M., delivered the letter to the occupiers. The occupiers responded favorably, believing their agenda would be best served by ending the confrontation. (21) The confrontation ended amidst a few skirmishes. (22)

    "Carload by carload the 120 remaining occupiers [half of whom were Indians] were ferried to a Government road block." (23) Some were freed; however, fifteen were arrested and transported to Federal Court in Rapid City. (24)

    The alleged ringleaders of the occupation, Dennis Banks and Russell Means, were "indicted for 11 violations of federal law, one conspiracy count and 10 substantive counts." (25) Venue was changed to St. Paul, Minnesota, where the cases were jointly tried to a jury. (26) After a trial spanning more than nine months, the cases were submitted to the jury on September 12, 1974. (27) The next day, one of the jurors fell ill. (28) On September 16, the Government advised the court that it refused to agree to have the case decided by only 11 jurors. (29) The trial court then, "treating a previously filed defense motion for judgment of acquittal as one for dismissal of the indictments, orally dismissed the remaining counts of the indictments against the defendants and discharged the jury." (30)

    In its memorandum decision, the court dismissed the indictments "'in the interests of justice."' (31) In its oral pronouncement, the court listed the following examples of governmental misconduct which merited dismissal of the charges:

    (1) the refusal of the Department of Justice to accept the verdict of the eleven remaining jurors; (2) the Government's failure to furnish the defense with a prior and "completely contradictory" statement of Government witness Alexander David Richards; (3) deception of the court with regard to an alleged rape incident involving Government witness Louis Moves Camp as well as general dissatisfaction with the Government's handling of this witness; and (4) unlawful military involvement with federal civilian law enforcement at Wounded Knee. (32) The Government appealed the dismissal. The Eighth Circuit dismissed the appeal: "Since the dismissal terminated the trial in defendants' favor, after jeopardy had attached, and there is no way that a retrial could be avoided in the event of a reversal and remand, we hold that the Government's appeal is barred by the Double Jeopardy Clause and must be dismissed." (33)

    In the years to follow, South Dakota witnessed several more interesting South Dakota trials that concerned A.I.M. members. (34) In the early 1970's, the Pine Ridge Reservation elected Dick Wilson as tribal leader. (35) In the view of Law Professor and author Douglas O. Linder, Wilson was a "vicious" and "unscrupulous leader," who wielded power to attack "traditionalists." (36) Wilson enforced his will with the assistance of a vigilante force dubbed "GOONs (Guardians of the Oglala Nation)." (37) From 1973 to 1975, referred to by A.I.M. members as "[t]he Reign of Terror," Pine Ridge witnessed upwards of sixty unsolved murders and its murder rate was the highest in the United States. (38) Incredibly, in that time frame, there were more killings at Pine Ridge (population of approximately 12,000) than in the rest of South Dakota combined. (39)

    By 1975, Pine Ridge traditionalists requested A.I.M. send members to protect from GOON squad attacks. (40) One A.I.M. member who responded to this request was Leonard Peltier, a thirty-year-old who was wanted on charges of attempted murder and assault of a police officer in Wisconsin. (41)

    On June 26, 1975, FBI agents Ronald A. Williams, 27, and Jack R. Coler, 28, arrived at Oglala with the intention to arrest Jimmy Eagle, who had been accused of armed assault and kidnapping. (42) The agents spotted and followed a white and red van that they thought contained Eagle. (43) In reality, Peltier and A.I.M. members Joseph Stuntz and Norman Charles were in the van. (44) The van pulled over, the occupants "'hopped out"' (45) and "[t]he agents stopped their cars on the road." (46) Subsequently, shots were fired from the nearby Jumping Bull compound homes and from the nearby tree line. (47) Peltier, who had taken shelter by junked cars, rose to repeatedly shoot at the agents. (48) Other A.I.M. members, hearing the gunfire, rushed to the scene. (49) Pinned down amidst crossfire, the agents were wounded. (50) Coler was hit near his left elbow, "likely from a bullet fired through his open trunk lid." (51)

    While it is unclear whose shots injured Coler, it is clear that Peltier, Dino Butler, and Bob Robideau (all of whom were ultimately charged with murder) "fired some of the 125 shots," 114 of which were fired from an AR-15. (52) After the shots were fired, Coler crawled out of his vehicle and passed out due to a loss of blood. (53) Agent Williams, who was not as badly injured as Coler, dropped his firearm, took off his shirt, "and waved it as a flag of surrender." (54) Williams used "his shirt as a tourniquet" for Coler's shattered arm. (55)

    At this juncture, disputed testimony indicated that Peltier, Butler, and Robideau approached the two agents. (56) Within minutes, the agents died from gunshots to their heads, fired at point-blank range. (57) A pathology report indicated that Williams was shot with his hand covering his face: "the bullet that went through his head first blasted through his hand." (58) "Prosecutors would later suggest that Williams died" while begging for his life. (59) Shortly after the shooting, Robideau, Peltier, and Butler were spotted in agent Williams' green car. (60) An ambulance team sped to the scene, but was met with gunfire. (61)

    Over two months after the agents were murdered, a van transporting Robideau and other A.I.M. members exploded near Wichita, on the Kansas turnpike. (62) Among the items found in the vehicle were Agent Coler's .308 rifle, "an arsenal of homemade explosives" and an AR-15. (63) Later, prosecutors would contend that the AR-15 was the weapon used to kill Williams and Coler and that Peltier owned the weapon. (64)

    Several weeks later, an Oregon state trooper identified a man who fit Peltier's description traveling in a motor home. (65) The man suspected to be Peltier offered the officer a fake name and then ran away as he fired in the trooper's direction. (66) The person driving the motor home sped away. (67) The motor home was later found abandoned...

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