South Dakota Judge’s Rush to Judgment Shows He Thinks Native Children Do Not Matter

Students from American Horse School at Allen on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation were told to "go back to the reservation" and sprayed with beer.

Students from American Horse School at Allen on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation were told to “go back to the reservation” and sprayed with beer.

Commentary

US Justice Department should intervene and investigate Crimes Against American Indian children

South Dakota Fourth Circuit Court Magistrate Judge Eric Strawn ruled on Thursday that Trace O’Connel, 41, will not spend a day in jail if convicted of the misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct. The charge carries up to a $500 fine and a 30-day jail sentence.

O’Connell is the man who sprayed beer on a group of 57 American Indian students from the Pine Ridge Indian Reseration at a Rapid City Rush hockey game on January 24, 2015. O’Connell was part of a group in the corporate suite owned by Eagle Sales of the Black Hills, which is the Anheuser Busch distributor for the region.

As the hockey game, progressed the group became more and more intoxicated and rowdy according to witnesses. Eventually members of the group began to taunt the American Indian students with racial statements. Allegedly O’Connell told the children to “go back to the reservation.” He also allegedly sprayed beer on the group of 57 Lakota students.

Wisely, the parent and school staff chaperones of the students removed them from the hockey game during the third period to avoid the children being exposed to more drunk and disorderly behavior out the Eagle Sales of Black Hills corporate group. Members of the party informed security at the Rushmore Civic Center what occured.

After several weeks of investigation, O’Connell was the only person arrested for his racist behavior. Several of the American Indian students were able to identify him in photos shown to them by law enforcement investigators.

O’Connell was the only one arrested out of the intoxicated group of hockey fans. He is the softball coordinator for Philip, South Dakota according to the town’s website.

On Thursday, O’Connell did not appear in court where there was a continuation hearing to delay his trial. The trial delay is necessary to allow his new attorney to review the case. O’Connell’s former attorney, Patrick Duffy, passed away unexpectedly earlier this month.

At the continuation hearing, Judge Strawn set the date for the trial to begin on July 22, 2015.

It was at the continuation hearing he made his judgment call to declare there would be no jail time even if O’Connell is convicted. He took jail time off the table according a spokesperson for the court.

With a “no jail” time sentence, there was no longer a need for a jury trial according to South Dakota law. Therefore, Judge Strawn will determine the verdict and impose sentencing if O’Connell is found guilty.

Judge Strawn’s decision to impose no jail time is a rush to judgment and clearly demonstrates he has little concern about justice on behalf of the American Indian students. His rush to judgment shows he – nor the justice system in South Dakota – think the well-being of Native children does not matter.

The judge appears to be more concerned about keeping the drunk and racist O’Connell out of jail, than he is about justice for American Indian children.

One has the right to ask: How can some drunk spray beer on children—regardless of the color of their skin— without having to severely disciplined and punished? Hurting children is no small matter. Actually more severe sentences are imposed by judges when crimes are committed against children.

One has the right to ask: Wouldn’t it be nice if jail time was taken off the table for all criminal charges? Then, no one would ever have to worry about going to court. It could save taxpayers a whole lot of money. Of course, there is something wrong with that scenario – just as there is something grossly wrong with Judge Strawn taking jail time off the table for the brut O’Connell.

In March, the Oglala Sioux Tribe from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation asked the U.S. Justice to intervene in this particular case. The Tribe wants the Justice Department to bring hate crime charges against those in the Eagle Sales of Black Hills corporate box.

Since the State of South Dakota cannot seem to protect American Indians, it is time for the Justice Department to intervene  and to investigate all aspects of this civil rights case.

Judge Strawn was appointed to the Fourth Judicial Circuit Court in November 2014.

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