White Man Cleared in ‘Lakota 57’ Case

     RAPID CITY, S.D. (CN) – A South Dakota judge cleared a white man of disorderly conduct charges after he was accused of dousing Native American children with beer and insults at a hockey game.
     Trace O’Connell, 41, was in a box suite at a Rapid City Rush home game on Jan. 24. Witnesses claimed he spilled beer on a group of 57 Sioux middle school children below his balcony. One chaperone said he told them to “go back to the rez,” but the judge found no corroboration for that allegation.
     The children went to the game from Pine Ridge Indian Reservation as a reward for exceptional academic performance, according to the Lakota Country Times.
     The Rapid City Rush are a pro hockey team in the ECHL (fka East Coast Hockey League), affiliated with the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes.
     Neither team was a party to the lawsuit, City of Rapid City v. Trace O’Connell.
     Pennington County Judge Eric Strawn found O’Connell not guilty on Sept. 1.
     The incident made news, particularly in Native American news sites. Oglala Sioux President John Yellow Bird Steele called for a federal hate crime investigation.
     Supporters of the “Lakota 57” held numerous demonstrations and protests, including an 18-mile run to raise awareness during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
     The city sought a jury trial, but Judge Strawn sought a bench trial so children could testify before the school year resumed.
     The trial was held at the Rapid City Performing Arts Center to accommodate the 250 spectators, according to the Rapid City Journal.
     In his 19-page verdict, Strawn cited inconsistencies between the children’s relation of events and a chaperone’s. For example, the chaperone said she saw beer poured onto a group of kids, but two girls involved said O’Connell did not pour beer on them and that he was only “joking” with them.
     No one was able to corroborate the chaperone’s testimony that O’Connell told the kids to “Go back to the Rez,” Strawn said.
     Although multiple witnesses attested that beer was sprayed at the kids, Strawn found that “Defendant, at the time when a score by the Rush just prior to the score that tied the game, joined with the crowd in celebration and making a movement like he was roping, sprayed many in his suite … [including the] students.”
     Strawn said he had “reasonable doubt that the defendant’s celebratory roping reaction … was consciously done” and noted that “a majority of the arena, including the children, stood up and demonstrated elation.”
     “The action was not the result of an unjustifiable disregard of a substantial risk to the children’s safety,” Strawn said, finding that the city had not proved that O’Connell “performed any action which physically abused or threatened any person or persons in fear of safety of life, limb, health or property.”
     Discrediting the chaperone’s testimony because she heard the offensive epithet without seeing who said it, Strawn concluded that “not one person testified to having identified the defendant as having uttered any racially charged words.”
     O’Connell’s attorney Michael Butler told Kota Territory News, an ABC outlet: “I’m not surprised. My client never did anything except attend a hockey game and have a good time. The events were blown out of proportion and driven by a few adults with an agenda.”
     The tone on the Lakota 57 Facebook page Tuesday was somber. “We are today sickened by this white man’s decision to allow other rich white men to harm Indian children for fun, while drunk, because they knew they could get away with it,” one poster wrote.
     Attorneys could not be reached for comment.

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