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On December 10 a South Dakota jury found John Graham guilty of felony murder in the death of American Indian Movement (AIM) member Anna Mae Aquash. John Graham, a Tuchone native originally from the Yukon, continues to maintain his innocence. Aquash was murdered in the 1970s in an execution-style killing in South Dakota. Graham has said that she was his friend and comrade.
In 2004, Arlo Looking Cloud was convicted of murder for aiding in the murder of Aquash. He received a life sentence with a chance of parole in 2013. Earlier this year, Richard Marshall was acquitted on the charge of supplying the gun that killed Aquash. Looking Cloud testified against both Marshall and Graham at trial. Thelma Rios plead guilty in November of this year to charges of aiding and abetting, for which she received five years of probation and no jail time.
At trial, the state alleged that John Graham took Aquash from Denver against her will and ultimately killed her in the hills of South Dakota. The government claimed the motive for the murder was that AIM believed Aquash to be an informant who had knowledge of sensitive information.
The jury acquitted Graham of premeditated murder: the first-degree charge. Nevertheless, the lesser charge of second degree felony murder* carries a sentence of life in prison.
Aquash was a Mi’kmaq from Nova Scotia and was well-known as a skilled organizer and warrior with AIM. In 1975, she said she had been targeted and threatened with death by the FBI. Her body was found on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in February 1976. The original autopsy report, made by an FBI-contracted coroner, stated her cause of death as "exposure" and made no record of the bloody bullet-wound in the back of her head. The FBI removed her hands for purposes of identification in Washington as they claimed the body was unidentifiable. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) buried Aquash as a Jane Doe.
When the hands were identified as those of Anna Mae Aquash, AIM attorneys requested a second autopsy by an independent coroner. The new coroner Gary Peterson, testified at Graham's trial that he had indeed noticed the entrance wound and an object (the bullet) lodged in her head through a cursory examination.
The time from 1973-1976 on Pine Ridge is referred to by many as "the reign of terror." A paramilitary squad known as the Guardians of the Oglala Nation (GOONs), operated on Pine Ridge and were organized by the BIA. The GOONs were notorious for targeting traditional Lakotas and AIM members by shooting up homes, running people off roads and outright murder. According to former GOON, Duane Brewer, the group was given ammunition and intelligence by the FBI themselves.
On March 11 1976, before the results of Anna Mae's second autopsy were known, an article entitled "FBI denies AIM implication that Aquash was informant" appeared in the Rapid City Journal, despite the fact that AIM never publicly made any such allegation. Already the FBI had begun to redirect blame away from themselves and spin a story to target AIM and discredit indigenous resistance.
"If you start with the premise that we are just as inclined to break the law as to honour it...then no case we put together has any credibility," said FBI Special Agent John Sennett during the 2001 FBI campaign against clemency for imprisoned AIM member Leonard Peltier.
In the South Dakota courtroom this month, the audience was directed not to exhibit any symbols of support or disagreement at any time during session. Judge Jack Delaney also said that reactive facial expressions would be grounds for removal from court for the duration of trial.
Said trial was riddled with inconsistencies. Witnesses contradicted one another, stating that Aquash's hands were tied in front, behind or not at all when she was "kidnapped" from a house in Denver.
The murder having taken place 35 years ago, many contradictions in testimony were explained away as a problem of degraded memory. The entire case rested on verbal testimony without a shred of material evidence.
Witness Darlene Ecoffey (previously Kamook Banks), wife of Robert Ecoffey (the lead investigator of Aquash's murder and superintendent of the BIA on Pine Ridge), and ex-wife of AIM leader Dennis Banks, had worked with the FBI for at least a decade. She is known to have worn a wire and interviewed various AIM supporters. As in the Looking Cloud trial, Ecoffey again testified that Leonard Peltier told Anna Mae and herself that he had executed the two FBI agents in the 1975 "shoot-out at Oglala." Leonard Peltier is currently serving two consecutive life sentences for the death of the two FBI agents. He has always maintained his innocence despite his parole being contingent on an admission of guilt.
"Kamook’s testimony was like being stabbed in the heart while simultaneously being told your sister just died," said Leonard Peltier about Ecoffey's similar testimony at Looking Cloud's 2004 trial. "Of all the fabrications that the government has used to keep me imprisoned, this one hurt so deeply."
Witness Angie Janis said she was at the house in Denver when Anna Mae was "kidnapped." Janis works as a secretary at the Pine Ridge BIA. Her boss is Robert Ecoffey, bringing into question her motives for testifying. Darlene Ecoffey admitted that she had been paid over $40,000 by the FBI for her work as an informant. Testimony was also heard from FBI and BIA agents including the notorious FBI agent William Wood.
The defense rested its case on December 7 without calling a single witness. Twice, defense lawyer John Murphy asked Judge Jack Delaney to dismiss the charges against Graham, arguing that prosecutors had not proven enough of their case. Delaney disagreed and denied the motion.
So why is John Graham being targeted and why do many believe that he is innocent?
Anna Mae Aquash, Leonard Peltier and John Graham all consistently refused to falsely testify on behalf of the State. In return, Anna Mae was threatened with her life by the FBI. In an affidavit, Leonard Peltier said he was offered his freedom in exchange for false testimony against John Graham. Graham himself said that agents visited him four times in the Yukon, trying to get him to sign false statements implicating AIM leadership in the death of Anna Mae. When Graham refused the FBI said that he would face the charges instead.
"(The FBI) offered me my freedom and money if I’d testify the way they wanted," said Aquash when she was arrested in 1975. " I have those two choices now. I chose my kind of freedom, not their kind, even if I have to die."
John Graham also chose this kind of freedom, for which he now faces life in prison.
It has been suggested that prosecutors may proceed to charge some former AIM leaders with ordering the Aquash murder.
This trial has brought no real resolution. If anything the truth shown here is that state still aims to disrupt resistance movements and those who dare to struggle are at odds with the goals of the state. Although the imprisonment of John Graham is a tragedy, his refusal to frame others is also an inspiration to those who continue to resist the destruction of the land and native ways of life.
In Graham's own words, “I am a warrior. I was a warrior when I first went to South Dakota and I'll be a warrior this time when I have to go to South Dakota.” (from his 2007 extradition from Vancouver to South Dakota)
Graham's defense team is still working on his behalf. His sentencing is scheduled for January 24, 2011.
* In felony murder cases, the prosecution does not have to prove that the accused actually killed anyone, instead the accused is found criminally liable for any deaths that occur during or in furtherance of a felony. In this case the felony is the kidnapping charge. For instance, if two people are robbing a bank and one of them is killed by police, the getaway driver can then be convicted of felony murder.
Johanna Brand, The Life and Death of Anna Mae Aquash: References the article "FBI denies AIM implication that Aquash was informant" from March 11, 1976
Michael A. de Yoanna, Passing over Peltier (pt. 2): FBI Agent John Sennett quotation
Kevin McKiernan interview of Duane Brewer, quoted by Ward Churchill