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Philip Man Found Not Guilty Of Pouring Beer On Native American Hockey Fans

NOTE:  A statement from an attorney representing some of the parents and children who were involved in the January incident is included in its entirety below this story.     

A judge has acquitted Trace O’Connell of Philip on a disorderly conduct charge from what has been called an act of racism against Native American children attending a hockey game. 

O’Connell was accused of making racist statements and pouring beer on the heads of some children from American Horse School on the Pine Ridge Reservation, who were attending a Rapid City Rush hockey game.  Mike Butler served as O’Connell’s defense attorney—he says he and his client are obviously relieved by the verdict.

Butler says, “It was not unexpected, based on the evidence that the city presented.  But this is not to say that he’s entirely pleased.  He has been subject to a considerable amount of public ridicule.  He has been falsely maligned. 

"He’s been through quite a lot; accused of being a racist, accused of being a child abuser, and on and on it goes.”

Native Americans in Rapid City say O’Connell’s acquittal is one more example of how Lakota children don’t matter.  Mayor Steve Allender says the city is preparing for backlash.

According to Allender, “You know, what I’m hoping for is calm and cool heads; because now is the time for the people to take this matter into their hands and see what can be done about race relations and about working together.  No protest, no picket line is going to create justice that will make people happy.”

Allender, who recently retired as Rapid City’s police chief, met with a group of protesters soon after Tuesday’s verdict was announced.  He and Native American leaders are planning a public meeting to work on improving race relations.  

STATEMENT FROM ATTORNEY BRIT LONG:

As you know, I represent many of the families whose children were doused with beer at the January 24 Rush hockey game in Rapid City. Yesterday’s opinion acquitting Trace O’Connell of disorderly conduct is not a surprise. There was no other possible outcome given that the evidence of several crimes against these children was apparently never obtained, lost, discarded, or apparently never presented to the court. 

The children harmed were interviewed nearly 3 weeks after the attack. Those interviews were in many cases only a few moments in length, conducted by armed officers often unaccompanied by professionals trained to work with children and trauma victims.  The City did not conduct follow up interviews with the children when the City was informed that the interviews did not comply with best practices and had failed to record important facts material to the case from many of those harmed. 

Before the trial had even begun, the City clearly communicated its belief that no crime had been committed--while continuing to prosecute O’Connell--in a communication to a civil attorney contemplating civil suit. The City informed that attorney that the City not only did not believe that harassment had occurred but that the City intended to use the incomplete statements the City had gathered against the children who made them in order to avoid liability. 

The presiding judge declined to meet with us when we hoped to inform him that material facts were not being presented to the court. The City refused to communicate with those representing the parents throughout the case and particularly while witness preparation would normally have been taking place. The City itself brought child witnesses in for preparation only days before the trial. 

The City did not inform my clients, children with no legal experience, of legal procedure, the burden of proof, the elements of the crime charged, or even the most basic elements of what they would likely be asked as witnesses. When it became apparent that the City had little experience in criminal prosecutions and did not believe a crime had occurred—a basic conflict of interest--the Mayor nonetheless refused to appoint a prosecutor who did believe a crime had occurred and who was not planning to use the witness' own statements--procured by the City--against them to protect the City. 

The Mayor instead informed the assembled crowd that the parents whose children had been doused with beer, drawn into inappropriate conversation and attacked in racist terms by powerful, wealthy men so drunk they could not drive were lucky that any case had been brought. Lucky is not what those parents feel. 

At the close of the case the day after the Mayor’s statement, Defendant’s counsel was so certain of an acquittal that he did not respond to the City’s case, resting immediately. This is extremely unusual. Defendant’s counsel is an extremely experienced lawyer who would not have taken that step lightly. 

We note that among those who attacked the children were those who admitted under oath that all of those from Phillip were in violation of South Dakota’s open container laws by drinking while driving across three counties.  These were the same men who, travelling without their wives, became significantly inebriated and then repeatedly struck up apparently aggressive, personal, and inappropriate conversation with several teenage girls seated below them. The men were so inebriated that they did not themselves stop engaging those children and their overtures to the girls so persistent that the teachers present had to ask the girls not to answer any more questions. 

We note that no additional charges have been brought for those violations of South Dakota’s open container laws, apparently across three counties. Perhaps these men are so powerful that they will never be charged with that crime despite the confession under oath in open court. 

We have said throughout the case the police investigation did not gather the facts available, the prosecution did not call the witnesses with first hand experience of the most egregious conduct, and the judge never heard the facts which would have required a conviction. It is not a surprise that Mr. O’Connell was acquitted.