AIM activist Russell Means believes verdict was racist.
By Heidi Bell Gease, Journal Staff Writer
RAPID CITY - After almost seven hours of deliberation Friday, a federal jury found Arlo Looking Cloud guilty of first-degree murder in the 1975 execution-style slaying of American Indian Movement activist Anna Mae Pictou Aquash.
The jury of seven women and five men - which included two minority members, one of them an American Indian man - returned their verdict at 7:30 p.m. None looked at the defendant upon entering the courtroom, and Looking Cloud himself showed no emotion when the verdict was read. The defendant's family members, including an aunt who has watched the trial from her wheelchair, cried openly.
Defense attorney Tim Rensch said he would appeal the decision.
Rensch also said he believed the government's focus on AIM had prejudiced the jury against his client. "It had nothing to do with the case and could provide a substantial river of reasons for appeal."
AIM founder and former member Russell Means said the verdict showed it was "business as usual" in South Dakota's courts.
"Racism continues. Our culture is disregarded and not included, and one of the most pathetic men in the city of Denver is given the sole responsibility for the murder ordered by a leader of the American Indian Movement," Means said. "I'm just thoroughly disgusted and supremely disappointed."
But Robert Ecoffey, who helped investigate the case, said the trial was not about AIM. "It's just about justice for Anna Mae and her family," he said.
U.S. Attorney Jim McMahon immediately contacted Pictou Aquash's daughter Denise Maloney Pictou with news of the verdict. "She told me that this brings a little closure for them, and that makes it all worthwhile," he said.
McMahon credited Ecoffey's and other law enforcement officers' diligence in pursuing the case and praised the courage of witnesses who came forward to testify.
He declined to comment on whether other indictments are pending in the case. "We're looking forward to a visit by Mr. Graham in South Dakota, and then we'll just take it one step at a time," he said.
John Graham, also known as John Boy Patton, is also charged with first-degree murder in Pictou Aquash's death. He is free on bond in Canada, and an extradition hearing is set for March 1.
On Friday morning, prosecutors summed up their case in closing arguments, saying Looking Cloud knew what he was doing when he helped Graham lead Pictou Aquash, bound and begging for her life, from the road to the cliff's edge where she was shot.
McMahon reminded jurors that witnesses had testified Pictou Aquash was terrified in the months before her death, when rumors were rampant that she was a government informant. Government officials, including FBI agent David Price, the sole defense witness, say she was not an informant.
McMahon also said Looking Cloud had numerous indications that something bad might happen to Pictou Aquash when he helped take her from a home in Denver to Rapid City for questioning.
And he pointed to Looking Cloud's claim that once in Rapid City, he had left the others and visited a friend for a while. "If he left for a while, why didn't he leave for a long while?" McMahon asked jurors. "He was a part of this every step of the way, folks."
McMahon also noted testimony that Looking Cloud, Graham, Theda Clark and Pictou Aquash had stopped at an Allen home, where everyone but Pictou Aquash and the woman who lived there, Cleo Gates, went into a bedroom and closed the door.
Looking Cloud has said he doesn't remember stopping there "because it shoots his defense right in the head," McMahon said. "His defense through this whole trial has been, 'You know, I'm just the dummy. I didn't know what was going on.'"
But in Allen, McMahon said, Looking Cloud was included in the closed-door meeting. "If the defendant was really on the outside like he wants to make you believe … why wasn't he told to stay out, like Cleo Gates?" McMahon asked. "He went into that room, and he was part of that discussion. He knew exactly what was going on."
Rensch continued to maintain that Looking Cloud was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and didn't know Pictou Aquash was going to die until Graham shot her.
And he said that if the case was really about what happened to her in the Badlands, the testimony would have focused on that.
"But we didn't start out with that, and we didn't hear that," he said. "You heard about how terrible the American Indian Movement was."
Rensch said Looking Cloud wasn't privy to the meetings in Denver or Rapid City or Rosebud where Pictou Aquash's fate was allegedly decided.
"If you're weaving a story, and if you've been on the streets for a good portion of your life and you've been drinking a lot of alcohol … how are you going to keep a story straight?" Rensch asked, reminding jurors that in the videotaped interview with Ecoffey, Looking Cloud admitted to being under the effect of "a little alcohol."
If you can keep that story straight, Rensch said, you're either very detail-oriented, "or you're telling the truth. And Arlo has said these things from 1995 to 2003."
He said Looking Cloud has consistently said he doesn't remember stopping in Allen that night. Rensch reminded jurors that Cleo Gates testified that Pictou Aquash hadn't asked to use the telephone or tried to leave when her captors were meeting behind closed doors.
Rensch said evidence didn't support the claim that Looking Cloud knew Pictou Aquash was going to be murdered. Several witnesses testified that Looking Cloud had said the shooting was a surprise, and Rensch reminded jurors that merely being present at a crime doesn't make a person guilty.
"They're falling back on the fact that he was there," he said. "Tagging along isn't enough."
In the end, Rensch asked the jury not to decide the case on emotion, saying, "It's horrible that she was killed this way." But emotion crept into his final arguments as he asked the jury to acquit his client.
Arlo Looking Cloud's life was ruined by what happened in the Badlands, his attorney said. "He is a little, short man. He's disadvantaged. He's lived on the streets. He's abused alcohol and drugs. He's all alone."
Looking Cloud faced the U.S. government, which Rensch said had "taken a lightning rod of prejudice" and used it to tapinto fears and prejudices about AIM. He said prosecutors had "grabbed that tornado of prejudice, and they've brought it down, and they've hung it over his head."
Rensch asked jurors to hold the government to its burden of proof. "The poor man doesn't have it in him to weave this kind of a story," he said, appearing to tear up as he spoke. "There could be nothing more unjust than for a man who is small and weak to be crushed in this way."
McMahon responded, "He was in the wrong place at the wrong time for an awful long time."
Looking Cloud stayed with the others all the way from Denver to that Badlands cliff, he said, never choosing to leave. And he helped escort Pictou Aquash out to the ridge, which McMahon said was enough to prove he helped her die.
"It was offensive to me to hear that last little argument we heard about poor little Arlo Looking Cloud," McMahon said. "What about poor Annie Mae? What about the lady that they shot in the head? What about her 8- and 10-year-old daughters?"
McMahon said what happened is clear. "They went and marched her out to that cliff, and they shot her in the head. One of those two pulled the trigger, and the other one helped. And that's all there is to it. That's murder. It's an execution. There's no excuse for it."
Looking Cloud faces mandatory life in prison when sentenced April 23. The crime is not punishable by death because it occurred when the death penalty was considered unconstitutional.
Contact Heidi Bell Gease at 394-8419 or email@example.com