Questions remain after reservation slaying verdict

John Graham
By Nomaan Merchant
Rapid City, South Dakota (AP) December 2010

The daughters of a slain American Indian Movement activist said last week that they are pleased with the latest conviction in the 35-year-old murder case but remain convinced there are others who haven’t been charged.

Former AIM member John Graham was convicted recently in the murder of Annie Mae Aquash in 1975 on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge reservation. Her death remains synonymous with AIM and its often-violent clashes with federal agents in the 1970s.

Marty Jackley, the state attorney general who prosecuted the case, declined to say if anyone else might face charges.

“We want to take an opportunity to look back at what the evidence showed and make an informed decision,” Jackley said.

Aquash’s daughters, Denise Maloney Pictou and Debbie Maloney Pictou, said they still don’t believe the full story is known about their mother’s death.

“I want people to take responsibility for their involvement,” Denise Maloney Pictou said. “People now know who the main players are.”

 Annie Mae Pictou Aquash
Debbie Maloney Pictou, a corporal in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, said she thought Graham’s case was “just a step forward” in finding justice. “There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done,” she said.

Graham was acquitted of premeditated murder, but found guilty of felony murder in connection with a kidnapping, which carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison. One juror said afterward there was swift agreement that Graham was culpable but disagreement during jury deliberations about whether he actually fired the fatal shot.

Another activist Arlo Looking Cloud, was also convicted in Aquash’s slaying six years ago and is serving a life sentence.

Prosecutors did not address at trial who ordered Aquash’s death. Several former leaders of the group – which gained prominence in the 1970s but has since faded from public view – have denied being involved.

During five days of testimony at Graham’s trial, prosecution witnesses testified they saw Graham and two other AIM supporters tie Aquash’s hands and place her in the back of a red Ford Pinto. The three took Aquash from Denver to Rapid City and then toward South Dakota’s Pine Ridge reservation, witnesses testified.

 Thelma Rios
But several expected witnesses – including Thelma Rios, who pleaded guilty last month in connection with Aquash’s kidnapping – did not testify at Graham’s trial. One witness, Angie Janis, testified that Rios called her in November 1975 to say Aquash was an informant and needed to be taken from Denver, where she was living, to Rapid City.

Rios’ testimony could shed light on who asked her to make that call. Jackley would not comment on why Rios didn’t testify at Graham’s trial.

“I will tell you that it wasn’t an oversight,” he said. “We certainly discussed it within our trial strategy, but that’s all I can disclose.”

Paul DeMain, an Indian journalist who’s long researched the Aquash case, likened Graham and the two other activists to soldiers following orders.

“Somewhere in that pyramid, it leads right to the top,” he said, adding that he thought more than one leader was involved.

 Russell Means
Russell Means, an early leader of AIM, has blamed Vernon Bellecourt, another group leader, for ordering the murder. When asked before the trial whether he was involved, Means replied, “Get real.”

Vernon Bellecourt denied allegations against him in a 2004 interview with The Associated Press, four years before he died.

“To this day I don’t know who shot Anna Mae Aquash,” he said at the time.

Two other leaders, Clyde Bellecourt and Dennis Banks, have declined to comment.

Aquash, a member of the Mi’kmaq tribe of Nova Scotia, was 30 when she died. Her death came about two years after she participated in AIM’s 71-day occupation of the South Dakota reservation town of Wounded Knee.

AIM was founded in the late 1960s to protest the U.S. government’s treatment of American Indians and demand the government honor its treaties with Indian tribes. It gained national attention in 1972 when it took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington but has since faded from public view.

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