A judge in Rapid City S.D. has acquitted a man accused of harassing Native American students from the Pine Ridge Reservation with racial slurs and spilling beer on them at a minor league hockey game.
41-year-old Trace O’Connell of Faith was the only person arrested in connection with the January incident that spurred protests by Native Americans and who believed the charge was too lenient.
Magistrate Judge Eric Strawn had ruled in May that O’Connell would face only a fine and not jail time, meaning the case would not go to a jury. The two-day trial in July drew as many as 250 spectators as well as protests outside the courthouse.
- Native American students racially harassed, sprayed with beer at Rapid City hockey game
- Trial of Man Accused of Harassing Native Americans Ends
A group of students from the American Horse Indian School in Allen, —on the northeast edge of Pine Ridge— were watching a Rapid City Rush hockey game from the lower level of the Rushmore Plaza Ice Arena while O’Connell, who is white, was part of a group above them in a luxury suite.
Witnesses at the trial agreed that at one point, some of O’Connell’s beer came down on the group, but the descriptions ranged from it being accidentally spilled during a celebration to being poured, sprayed, and even spit down on the students and chaperones.
Witnesses from the school group also testified that O’Connell and perhaps others with him made racially insensitive comments to and about the students, but he and others denied it.
Today’s verdict might not be the last word on the incident. Oglala Sioux Tribal President John Yellowbird Steele has called for a federal investigation and a Minnesota attorney has filed preliminary paperwork for a federal suit against, among others, O’Connell and Rapid City – which owns the arena.
Rapid City Attorney Joel Landeen, who prosecuted the case, issued a written statement indicating his displeasure about the verdict on Tuesday morning.
“Obviously, we are disappointed in the decision. We felt all along the city had a strong case with enough evidence to move forward for conviction. The disorderly conduct charge was the strongest charge the city could bring. We worked with the facts we had and it was a challenging case to administer, with a variety of recollections and perceptions to share from numerous witnesses,” Landeen wrote.
“Overall, I believe the city was able to present the best argument available to support prosecution of disorderly conduct.”
Landeen went on to praise those who testified.
“Court proceedings can be intimidating and it took a lot of courage for the young witnesses to step forward and provide their testimony. Despite this outcome, I am hopeful that as a result of this case, people attending activities at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center will have a better appreciation of how their conduct and behavior can impact others and will conduct themselves accordingly at future events.”
A press release from the city indicated that the judge’s decision is final and cannot be appealed.