Minutes before he was sentenced Monday to a mandatory term of life in prison for killing Annie Mae Aquash in 1975, John Graham turned to face Aquash's daughters and said he was innocent.
"The truth hasn't come out here," Graham told Denise Maloney Pictou and Debbie Maloney as he stood shackled, wearing a prison jumpsuit. "I'd like to tell your family that Annie Mae wasn't kidnapped ... she wasn't murdered in my presence ... that just did not happen."
But jurors at Graham's murder trial last month did not agree. Graham, a Southern Tutchone from Canada, was convicted of felony murder on Dec. 10 after jurors heard evidence that he had helped kidnap Aquash, a Native activist, from Denver in December 1975. Her body was found in February 1976 on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Aquash, a Mi'kmaq from Nova Scotia, Canada, had been shot in the head execution-style, reportedly because leaders in the American Indian Movement believed she was a government informant.
Both of Aquash's daughters spoke Monday about the pain of growing up without their mother, whom Denise Maloney Pictou described as "the center of my universe."
Maloney Pictou, who was 10 years old when her mother was killed, said the murder has defined her life. Maloney Pictou said the loss kept her from exploring her Native heritage. She talked of trying not to be an overprotective mother to her own children, one of whom worries whenever Maloney Pictou travels away from home.
"My children have not known their grandmother as anything else but a murder victim," she said, but she wants people to know that Aquash lived a full life. "I want to be able to remember my mother the way I saw her last - laughing, smiling and smelling of sweetgrass."
Maloney Pictou said 35 years was "an incomprehensible amount of time to wait for justice," but she hoped others would also have faith in the justice system and trust that truth will prevail.
"If my mother had lived, John Graham, I would have spoken this to you in my Native language," Maloney Pictou said. Then she held up a large color photograph of her mother, saying, "This, John Graham, is what you stole from me."
Debbie Maloney first thanked the Lakota people who cared for her mother.
"I often wonder how much heartache we must endure, my family and I," Maloney said, talking about the physical and emotional toll the trials have taken on the family. Even when her mother's body was returned to Nova Scotia in 2004, an attorney's injunction threatened to prevent the family from giving Aquash a proper burial in her homeland.
Maloney said she feared how she would react when she finally looked Graham in the eye during his trial. "Shockingly, I found myself looking at a shell of a man," she told Graham. "I looked at you and I pitied you."
But Maloney said she is confident her mother did not die in vain. "We are all better people" because of her life, she said.
Graham's brother, Harold Johnson, and son, J.T. Graham, also attended Monday's sentencing. Johnson said the family has many relatives in their native Yukon.
"We all know you're innocent John," he said. "No one can believe this is really going on."
Johnson said the family would continue to seek the truth.
"We're not going to stop going after God's truth," he said. "We're not going to give up."
When Graham stood to speak, he talked about years of "rumors, speculation and innuendo," and a trial he said was filled with lies and half-truths.
"I guess you're gonna believe what you're gonna believe," he said, going on to say that while he admits he drove Aquash to a "safe house" in South Dakota, he did not kill her and did not take orders to do so. "I would never do that."
Under state law in effect in 1975, Graham faced a mandatory sentence of life in prison. Defense attorney John Graham objected Monday to a pre-sentence investigation stating that Graham would not be eligible for parole, which is the state's position. Murphy argued that Graham, 55, should be eligible for parole.
Seventh Circuit Judge Jack Delaney denied Murphy's objection, saying his arguments had merit but that the matter would be left to a higher court to decide.
Murphy said he will appeal Graham's conviction and sentence.
South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley said in a news release Monday that the "callous disregard for human life shown during this kidnapping and execution-style murder, combined with the lack of remorse by Graham, justifies a sentence of this severity."
The Aquash investigation remains open, Jackley said.
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