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A federal jury did not believe a defense lawyer's argument that his client fatally shot a man in order to defend his best friend. 

Instead, the jury ruled Friday that Clarence Yellow Hawk is guilty of first-degree murder for killing 42-year-old Chris Janis near Sharps Corner on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 2017, court records show. The jury also found him guilty of firing a weapon while committing a violent crime but found him not guilty of possessing a gun with an obliterated serial number.

The prosecutor and defense lawyer agreed during opening statements last Monday that Janis and his cousin Cheryl Janis went to Sharps Corner May 27, 2017, to sell Janis' hydrocodone to Scott Benson, who arrived with Yellow Hawk, his best friend, and Jamie Shoulders. Prosecutor Kathryn Rich argued that Yellow Hawk shot Janis during a premeditated murder while defense lawyer Dana Hanna said Yellow Hawk shot Janis because he saw Janis pointing a gun at Benson.

Benson, the owner of the gun used in the shooting, was sentenced to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to accessory after the fact for helping Yellow Hawk and Jamie Shoulders flee the scene. Shoulders is scheduled to be sentenced in July after pleading guilty to second-degree murder for shooting Janis at least two times before Yellow Hawk picked up the gun and continued shooting. 

Co-defendants' convictions can't be shared with the jury in order to argue that the defendant is also guilty, according to a motion filed by the prosecution. But prosecutors did mention Benson's conviction in order to demonstrate his credibility as a witness. 

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The motion also asked Judge Jeffrey Viken to allow prosecutors to mention Shoulders' conviction because "it is entirely at odds" with Hanna's argument that Yellow Hawk was defending Shoulders. "Shoulders’ guilty plea to second degree murder negates entirely any claim on his part to a need to be defended by a third party."

Viken rejected the motion. 

Between April 29 and May 2, the jury heard testimony from Benson, Shoulders, Cheryl Janis and others, court records show. Yellow Hawk did not testify. The jury also saw photographs of the crime scene, Janis' injuries, and money, drugs, casings and guns found at or nearby the scene. They saw messages between the various people who met for the drug deal, read letters that Yellow Hawk wrote from jail, and listened to phone calls from Yellow Hawk in jail and the 911 call reporting the shooting. 

The trial wrapped up around 4:30 p.m. Thursday, and the jury came back with its verdict at 12:50 p.m. Friday, court records show. Yellow Hawk, who will be punished by the death penalty or life in prison for his murder conviction, has not yet been scheduled for sentencing.

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— Contact Arielle Zionts at arielle.zionts@rapidcityjournal.com

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