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State Supreme Court considers potential prejudice in Rapid City murder

Law and justice concept - Themis statue, judge hammer and books. Courtroom.
Law and justice concept - Themis statue, judge hammer and books. Courtroom.

On Christmas Eve of 2020, a Rapid City murder with suspected gang connections shook the night. This week, a key figure appeals his case to the state Supreme Court.

State of South Dakota V. Elias Richard questions the contents of the trial that led to Richard’s conviction in the death of Vernall Marshall.

Witnesses to the murder with plea agreements presented conflicting stories of the evening, framed as a drug deal and gang-related retaliatory violence.

Some witness testimony, namely that of Caleb Lucas, puts the gun in Richard’s hand. Defense attorney Greg Sperlich questions the quality of evidence and use of alleged ties to a gang -- known as the Dark Side Families.

“It had such little probative effect to begin with it wasn’t needed," Sperlich said. "All the witnesses said they were together. The state tried to point out that the four of them were seen on a video tape together earlier in the night so, ergo, they must have all been together. That’s important because, again, there’s such a paucity of evidence that says Elias Richard was even there – other than those three immunized witnesses.”

No gun was recovered, meaning no material evidence ties Richard to the shooting. Sperlich said those references to gang activity and errors in the discovery process should have led to a mistrial.

Erin Handke, representing the state, disagreed Richard’s trial was prejudicial.

“There was no prejudice here," Handke argues. "Defenses theory of the case is that Richard wasn’t the shooter, in fact it was this Lucas individual, and that evidence you can see throughout the trial. He was charged with first and second-degree murder in the alternative, and he was acquitted of that first-degree murder. If the jury was tainted by this, wouldn’t they have convicted him of that first-degree murder if they completely threw out Richard’s credibility here?”

The state argues gang connections provide motive for the crime, but one line from the prosecution created pause in the courtroom. In a prior hearing, in a moment described as ‘speculation’ at the Supreme Court, prosecutors described the so-called "gangsta style" of holding a firearm they claim was used in Marshall’s death.

“I don’t think the phrase ‘gangsta style’ – it’s a common phrase – I don’t think that automatically assumes the gang situation," Handke said. "I think it’s a slang phrase used throughout the world – throughout the general public. It doesn’t necessarily insinuate Richard’s in a gang and he shot them using the gangster style method.”

In the initial trial, there was no objection to the use of that language and Richard received a life sentence. A decision is expected to be returned in the coming weeks.

C.J. Keene is a Rapid City-based journalist covering the legal system, education, and culture