A Pine Ridge man accused of beating his girlfriend’s child to death was convicted Friday after the jury deliberated for under an hour.
Zachariah Poor Bear, 24, was found guilty of first-degree murder (felony murder) and assault resulting in serious bodily injury against 19-month-old Aaliyah Horse in 2015.
Authorities said he assaulted the toddler while she was alone with him between the afternoon and evening of May 14. The child’s mother, Tracey Horse, said Poor Bear got mad at having to babysit when she left their home to look for some marijuana.
Over two days of testimony at the Rapid City federal courthouse, beginning Wednesday, witnesses described seeing Aaliyah happy and healthy right before she was left in Poor Bear’s care. The following morning, the child was found dead in Poor Bear and Tracey’s bedroom, with bruises on her forehead, belly, side, back and hand.
An autopsy determined she died from blunt force trauma to the head and abdomen. A forensic pathologist who conducted the autopsy, Dr. Donald Habbe, said her internal injuries included bleeding in the head and broken ribs. After receiving the blow to her head, people who knew Aaliyah would have immediately seen she was “not normal” anymore.
“He was the last one to touch her,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Collins said of Poor Bear in her concluding argument Friday morning. “This is a process-of-elimination case.”
The defense, on the other hand, reiterated what it saw as gaps in the case: Nobody could say who assaulted the child, how she was assaulted, where, when and there was no physical evidence connecting Poor Bear to the killing.
Defense attorney Paul Winter also cast doubt on the testimony of Tracey, who took the stand even while she was facing the same charges as her ex-boyfriend. Winter said Tracey changed her story numerous times, finally settling on a version that would help the government’s case against Poor Bear — and her own. Horse admitted lying, explaining she was initially distrustful of the feds, she was confused from grief, and Poor Bear at times told her what to say.
At the start of trial, the prosecutors said Poor Bear was no longer accused of having committed the killing with an accomplice, contrary to his indictment.
“If you can’t reconcile it, you don’t have to,” Winter told the jury in his closing argument. “It’s not your job to investigate it.”
But the facts seemed clear to jurors. At 11:30 a.m. Friday, a little less than an hour after the case was handed to them, they informed U.S. District Court Chief Judge Jeffrey Viken they’d reached a verdict.
Collins and her co-counsel, Eric Kelderman, told the Journal it was the fastest they’ve seen a verdict come down in a criminal trial in their combined 18 years as federal prosecutors.
Collins believes the crucial evidence was Poor Bear being the last person to spend time with Aaliyah before she died. Tracey testified that when she got home from smoking marijuana on May 14, Poor Bear ordered her not to approach the sleeping child. Though in an earlier statement to investigators, Tracey said Aaliyah smiled at her after she kissed the toddler good night.
That inaccurate statement from Tracey, Collins said, initially prevented authorities from understanding how the child could have died soon after seeming to be in good health and spirits. Poor Bear and Horse were not charged until the spring of 2017, two years after the toddler’s death.
The prosecutors declined to say what will happen with Tracey’s charges because she was charged as a juvenile, which keeps her court records sealed. The only way to know the outcome of her criminal case is if Tracey herself publicizes it. She now lives in Montana.
Poor Bear’s lawyer declined to comment after the verdict was announced.
Poor Bear is detained at the Pennington County Jail while awaiting sentencing before Judge Viken. First-degree murder carries a mandatory life sentence; assault resulting in serious bodily injury of a minor, anywhere from 10 years to life in prison.