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'I'm tired of crying'; Family of shooting victim awaits answers

A collage of photos of Acey Morrison at a younger age. Morrison was killed on Aug. 21, 2022 by a man who claimed self defense. (Photos courtesy of Cheryse Hawkins, illustration by Josh Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)

A collage of photos of Acey Morrison at a younger age. Morrison was killed on Aug. 21, 2022 by a man who claimed self defense. (Photos courtesy of Cheryse Hawkins, illustration by Josh Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)

When Edelyn Catches went to Angostura Reservoir recently, it brought up memories of her daughter’s last birthday party. Catches remembered how much fun they had on the water.

“We got a pontoon and rode that whole lake all day and into the night," Catches said. "We had a cookout.”

They’re good memories she’d almost forgotten over the last year. For a moment, her daughter Acey Morrison was right there with her.

“A lot of things I didn’t even remember, but we were sitting there talking, laughing, I could just close my eyes and I could just hear her laughing and crack up," Morrison said.

Catches said the two laughed a lot together. But everything changed when 30-year-old Morrison was shot a killed in Rapid City last September.

Catches, who lives in Oglala, said her transgender daughter was a stable force in the family who many leaned on.

“She never was, never ever was scared to show who she was. She never tried to hide it. Never tried to be in the closet—or whatever," Catches said. "She was always proud of who she was.”

The Pennington County Sheriff’s office completed its investigation of the shooting a while ago.

Edelyn said she’s still waiting to hear from law enforcement about whether they’ll announce charges against the man.

“I’m tired of being angry. I’m tired of crying," Catches said. "There’s no closure, just all unanswered questions.”

According to the Pennington County State’s attorney, the defendant is claiming the shooting was self-defense. We’re not naming the man because he has not been charged with a crime.

“The difficulty that presents in this case is we know we have a homicide case," said Pennington County State’s Attorney Lara Roetzel. “And we have a thorough investigation that indicates a first-degree manslaughter. But at the same time, we have a thorough investigation that indicates a strong self-defense claim.”

Roetzel said she’s balancing those competing interests.

Further, she’s required to present evidence in a pre-trial hearing with a clear and convincing standard.

Roetzel said she’s leaning toward presenting the case to an investigative grand jury. That means she must present each side of the case.

“Present both, all of the strong evidence in favor of a first-degree manslaughter charge while also fairly presenting the affirmative defense of self-defense.” 

The state updated its self-defense laws in 2021 and 2022, putting into place “Stand Your Ground” laws. South Dakota’s law now mirrors Florida’s, which was used by George Zimmerman to defend his killing of Trayvon Martin more than a decade ago. That incident helped spur the Black Lives Matter movement.

The law says a person is presumed innocent if they use deadly force to “stand his or her ground” when they fear for their life, even in a public space.

Roetzel said stand your ground claims are increasing.

Samantha Chapman, an advocacy manager with the ACLU South Dakota, said stand your ground laws nationwide have created needless deaths and work against communities of color.

“Stand your ground laws rarely benefit a marginalized community. Generally, those are to protect white landowners,” Chapman said.

Republican State Senator John Wiik is one of the prime sponsors of the updates to South Dakota’s law.

In 2021, he spoke from the Senate floor, saying firearm owners need clarity in situations where the worst things are happening.

“We want to know what we can and can’t do because firearm owners are law abiding good people," Wiik said. "And we need to know where the lines are because we don’t want to cross them.”

One year later, Wiik defended the law as legislators considered additional changes. They approved a requirement that when a self-defense claim is used, prosecutors must prove to a judge that a homicide case should go forward with clear evidence that shows self-defense was not at play.

“The sky did not fall in Florida," Wiik said. "The sky did not fall in South Dakota.”

Meanwhile, Roetzel said she’s committed to meeting with family members before deciding on how to handle charges in this case. She plans to proceed by Sept. 18.

Lee Strubinger is SDPB’s Rapid City-based news and political reporter. A former reporter for Fort Lupton Press (CO) and Colorado Public Radio, Lee holds a master’s in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.