RAPID CITY, S.D. – A dozen South Dakota jurors needed only about four hours to agree that John Graham and two other American Indian Movement supporters kidnapped a fellow activist in 1975 and killed her on the Pine Ridge reservation, one jury member said. But they weren’t all convinced it was Graham who pulled the trigger.
After a second day of deliberations Friday, the 12 jurors convicted Graham of felony murder during the kidnapping of Annie Mae Aquash — whose death came to symbolize AIM and its often violent struggles with federal agents during the 1970s — but acquitted him of premeditated murder.
Juror Barry Winter said that although he and 11 others came to swift agreement Graham was culpable in Aquash’s death, there was disagreement about his role. Arlo Looking Cloud, who was convicted in Aquash’s slaying six years ago and is serving a life sentence, was the only witness who testified to seeing Graham kill Aquash. Looking Cloud said he stood nearby as it happened.
The jury eventually decided there wasn’t enough evidence to convict Graham, a 55-year-old Southern Tutchone Indian from Canada, of premeditation, Winter said.
“On the first count, we came to a fairly short resolution that he was guilty,” Winter told The Associated Press. “On the second one, that’s what we spent a lot of time on.”
Lead prosecutor Marty Jackley, the state’s attorney general, said the felony murder charge carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison. Jackley said Friday he wasn’t sure whether parole was an option.
Prosecutors said the activists who kidnapped and killed Aquash believed she was a government spy, which authorities have denied.
As South Dakota Judge John Delaney read the verdicts Friday, Graham gazed straight ahead without moving. His daughter, Naneek Graham, began to weep as jurors stood one by one to affirm the verdicts.
Aquash’s daughters, Denise Maloney Pictou and Debbie Maloney Pictou, later embraced prosecutors and cried.
“We waited 35 years,” Denise Maloney Pictou said. “It’s been a long road for us.”
During five days of testimony, prosecution witnesses testified they saw Graham, Looking Cloud and another AIM supporter tie Aquash’s hands and place her in the back of a red Ford Pinto. The three took Aquash from Denver toward South Dakota’s Pine Ridge reservation, witnesses testified.
Graham’s attorney, John Murphy, had accused Looking Cloud of embellishing his story and treating Graham like a “meal ticket” to a more lenient prison sentence.
Winter, the juror, said he thought Looking Cloud “conveyed honestly what he felt he was a witness to.”
“Most of us felt his testimony was credible also, to a degree,” Winter said.
The defense called no witnesses during the trial. Instead, Murphy questioned several prosecution witnesses — particularly Looking Cloud — about conflicts between their testimony and previous statements.
Murphy wasn’t available for comment after the verdicts were read. Graham’s daughter and relatives did not comment as they left the courthouse.
Aquash’s body was found in February 1976, but witnesses refused to come forward for years. Authorities began making progress in the 1990s, and Graham and Looking Cloud were indicted in federal court in 2003.
Graham was extradited four years later, but the federal charges against him were thrown out because neither he nor Aquash were American citizens. A state court then indicted Graham last year.
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.