Four-day trial leaves more questions than answers

VANCOUVER--The much-anticipated trial of Arlo Looking Cloud, a Native American man charged with the murder of Canadian aboriginal woman, Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash concluded the first week of February with a verdict of "guilty".

The body of the native rights activist and member of the American Indian Movement was found on 24 Feb 76, lying in a ravine in rural South Dakota. First ruled to have been death by exposure, it was later determined that she had died from an execution-style bullet wound to the head.

It was hoped the trial would illuminate a murder mystery shrouded in decades of rumours and suspicion. But it left more questions than answers and, for some, an utter disbelief that such an historic case could resolve so quickly.

"My concern with the trial is that it covers a murder which happened 28 years ago and only required three days of testimony," said Bob Newbrook, a retired police officer who was involved with the arrest of Leonard Peltier. "If we thought the court would be a crucible for truth, we were very much mistaken."

Looking Cloud's public defense attorney, Tim Rensch, called only one witness during the trial - FBI Special Agent David Price - who he questioned for a mere ten minutes, to counter the prosecution's 23 witnesses.

The ineffectual approach of the defense may have been the result of Looking Cloud's destitute financial status. He lived for years as a homeless person, suffering from a severe alcohol addiction. (By comparison, the trial of O.J. Simpson saw more than 120 witnesses - 53 called by the Defense - and a total of 153 days of testimony.)

While Looking Cloud entered a plea of "not guilty", his Defense chose not to challenge any of the witnesses who produced frequently contradictory stories of Looking Cloud discussing his alleged involvement in Anna Mae's death. The defense asserted that while he admitted to being present at the crime scene, he was unaware that Anna Mae would be murdered and was therefore not responsible for her death.

"Arlo's defense strategy was essentially to plead 'guilty with an explanation,'" said Matthew Lien, president of the John Graham Defense Committee. "As a result, so much evidence that suggests FBI complicity in Anna Mae's death was largely unexplored."

He referred to the infamous FBI-led autopsy where a bullet wound and bullet lodged in Anna Mae's cheek, along with blood-matted hair and stained clothing, were all remarkably overlooked. A second independent autopsy identified these features almost immediately.

The FBI testimony may have actually raised more questions than answers. An agent who was among the first at the crime scene testified the body was found clothed in moccasins and a dress. This caused the prosecution to interject, reminding their own witness that the body was found wearing blue jeans. The agent said he must have been mistaken.

If the trial did clarify anything, it was the absolute lack of reliable evidence linking John Graham to the death of Anna Mae. Of the 23 witnesses called by the prosecution, most were simply recounting versions of Arlo's alleged confessions, and these were full of contradictions.

One recounting of Arlo's story described Arlo driving to the scene of the crime but staying in the car, while another described Arlo walking to where Anna Mae was allegedly shot. Other versions described Anna Mae as being tied up, while videotaped testimony showed Arlo flatly denying she had been tied up at all. There is speculation that Arlo's confessions were not actually true admissions of involvement, but may have been coerced.

It is not known why Arlo began to implicate himself in Anna Mae's death several years ago, but the trial did call into question the origin of Arlo's "confessions". The involvement of Richard Two Elk as the earliest-known witness to claim having heard Arlo's confession now raises serious concerns, after Two Elk's credibility was seriously damaged during the trial.

Anna Mae's eldest daughter, Denise Maloney, testified that she had received a phone call from Two Elk in April 2002 in which he had presented himself as Arlo Looking Cloud's brother. Paul DeMain, a journalist whose credibility has come into question among many in the Canadian media, allegedly vouched for Two Elk, convincing Maloney to hear Arlo's story.

The Looking Cloud trial revealed, however, that Two Elk is not Arlo's brother. Two Elk's inconsistent and hostile testimony appeared to bring little value to the prosecution's case, and at times inspired outright laughter from the gallery.

Another highly anticipated witness was Kamook Banks, the ex-wife of prominent American Indian Movement (AIM) activist Dennis Banks. However, her testimony was barely relevant to Arlo Looking Cloud, instead condemning Leonard Peltier for allegedly bragging that he had killed two FBI agents during an earlier conflict between the FBI and members of the American Indian Movement.

The prosecution asserted her testimony was required to demonstrate the knowledge Anna Mae possessed about the AIM leadership, thus showing motive for their ordering her execution.

Upon cross examination, however, it was revealed that Kamook Banks had received at least $42,000 from the FBI to assist in building their case. This revelation brought the validity of her testimony (which for some had created the appearance that Peltier was on trial, rather than Looking Cloud) into question.

"Her testimony appeared to serve the FBI's interest in adding a few more nails to Leonard's coffin," said Lien, who felt it was a planned event to defame and condemn Peltier and the American Indian Movement. "I think the FBI saw this trial as an opportunity to grandstand their version of history for the media."

In a recent news release, Barry Bachrach, the attorney representing Leonard Peltier asked, "Who was on trial? The majority of the testimony presented had nothing whatsoever to do with Arlo Looking Cloud, but prominent members of the American Indian Movement."

The trial did serve as evidence to John Graham and his supporters, that the FBI is continuing its campaign to brutalize and incarcerate members of the American Indian Movement, perhaps in an effort to cover up their own complicity in crimes of the past.

"I feel now, more than ever, that John must not be extradited," said Jennifer Wade, a well-known human rights advocate and founding member of B.C.'s Amnesty International. "This feeling is based on all that has gone on in the Dakotas, with respect to the Leonard Peltier trial, and now the trial of Arlo Looking Cloud which shows that a conviction can be achieved on unreliable hearsay with so many discrepancies."

In light of the Looking Cloud trial, the John Graham Defense Committee and the Friends of John Graham are jointly calling upon Canada's Minister of Justice Irwin Cotler, to recognize the unacceptable caliber of evidence being presented against John Graham, and to disallow his extradition.

They are also calling for a complete and independent investigation into the FBI's involvment in the death of Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash, and the scores of malicious deaths in and around the Pine Ridge Reservation which remain uninvestigated.

"There are two groups of people in the world who know for certain that John Graham is innocent of the murder of Anna Mae Aquash," said Joni Miller of the Vancouver-based Friends of John Graham. "That's 'us' and 'them'," she said, referring to Graham's supporters and the FBI. "Only the FBI, however, know who actually killed her."

While much around Anna Mae's death remains a mystery, one thing is certain. John Graham knew Anna Mae, and he knew who she was afraid of. According to Graham, Anna Mae confided in him and others that she was mortally afraid of two people - FBI Agent Price and FBI informant Douglas Durham.

The day John Graham was released on bail, the rain brought a calm and melancholy atmosphere to the Vancouver afternoon. "The rain reminds me of her," said Graham. "She always said that if anything happened to her, she would speak to me through the rain. I always remember that."

John Graham remains in Vancouver where he maintains his innocence and plans to fight extradition to the United States.