Chase Iron Eyes (Photo via Last Real Indians)
Published April 3, 2018
Standing Rock Activist to Claim State Has Refused to Turn Over Key Defense Documents at Wednesday Hearing
MANDAN, NORTH DAKOTA – 2016 North Dakota Democratic congressional nominee Chase Iron Eyes will head back to court on Wednesday, charging that the state of North Dakota is withholding key evidence needed for his defense against charges stemming from protests of the Dakota Access pipeline. Attorneys for the Standing Rock Sioux tribal member say the evidence they’re after is extensive and will exonerate Iron Eyes by clarifying events that took place prior to or on the day of his arrest in February, 2017.
Constitutional attorney Daniel Sheehan, chief counsel of the Lakota People’s Law Project, represents Iron Eyes. He said the State is months late in both gathering and turning over evidence required for his team to present a “necessity defense” for his client, which will argue that any actions Iron Eyes took during the protests were necessary to prevent a greater harm.
“We had a hearing before Judge David Nelson on Nov. 3. The State was given until Dec. 31 to provide our requested documents,” said Sheehan. “And they stiffed us. Our opinion is that, frankly, they are afraid of the necessity defense, and they are jumping through every hoop to try to stop it.”
Whether or not Iron Eyes will eventually be granted the opportunity to present the defense still hangs in the balance. Judge Nelson, since recused from the case due to health reasons, granted extra time in November for Iron Eyes’ legal team to pursue the discovery evidence needed to present the defense. But now, Iron Eyes’ attorneys say, the state is refusing to cooperate.
Among the documentation being requested by Iron Eyes’ team are internal memos between law enforcement agencies and TigerSwan, a mercenary security firm that operated in North Dakota without a license, hired by the pipeline’s parent company, Energy Transfer Partners.
Internal memos published by investigative reporting website The Intercept allege that TigerSwan led a violent and comprehensive anti-protest, surveillance and publicity campaign that labeled protesters as “jihadist” and “terrorists,” among other potentially inflammatory language.
Iron Eyes’ attorneys have also requested documentation from North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum’s office, sparking a motion to quash from the governor. At the hearing, new presiding Judge Lee Christofferson will have the opportunity to rule on that motion.
“We are hoping that Judge Christofferson will agree that we are entitled to the governor’s evidence,” said Sheehan. “Ideally, the Court will also admonish the state’s attorney for his failure thus far to cooperate in the entire discovery process to which Chase is entitled to prepare his defense.”
The necessity defense, traditionally applied to cases such as a ship’s captain’s need to dump cargo to avoid sinking, has seen a different application in recent months as a defense for pipeline and other climate-related protestors. A judge in Massachusetts recently found a group of pipeline protesters in Boston “not responsible by reason of necessity.” In addition, a trial court in the state of Washington ruled days ago that Reverend George Taylor could use the defense to combat charges arising from his blockage of train tracks in Spokane to prevent the transportation of coal and oil.
“This legal defense is gaining momentum,” Sheehan said. “In our case, it’s a potential landmark for our legal system. We want every climate advocate, every Native rights advocate and every advocate for the Constitution to have this defense at his or her disposal to protest injustices in this nation.”
Iron Eyes’ legal argument posits that his protest was an attempt to protect his tribe from a likely oil spill under its primary source of water. He said that, while he knows mounting this defense carries some risk, he’s willing to take it. But first, the State must comply with court-mandated requests.
“I’m entitled to a fair trial under the United States Constitution,” said Iron Eyes. “If the prosecution is unwilling to pursue and turn over required evidence, I’m being denied my constitutional rights. The process so far shows a continuation of the pattern of denying rights to Native people. But I have faith in our judicial system, and I’m hopeful that Wednesday will be a watershed moment for this trial and our movement as a whole.”
South Central Judicial District trial court administrator Donna Wunderlich confirmed this past week that Iron Eyes’ case is one of 171 still open from the Dakota Access pipeline protests, which ended more than a year ago. To date, 543 cases have been completed. According to Sheehan, all but a few have ended in acquittals, dismissals of all charges, or deferrals of all charges.
Who: Lakota People’s Law Project lead North Dakota attorney Chase Iron Eyes is back in court.
What: Judge Lee Christofferson will be asked to review and enter orders confirming the earlier rulings entered by the former presiding judge in the Iron Eyes case, Judge David Nelson. These rulings include:
1. An order for the state prosecutor to respond to discovery demands made by Chase Iron Eyes’ legal team; (Daniel Sheehan: “The state prosecutor has thus far provided only a minimal response, far from that which is required. This disturbing pattern of willfully incomplete responses now stretches back over many months.”)
2. An order to the state prosecutor to pursue all the discovery from law enforcement agencies that was agreed upon last Nov. 3 and ordered by Judge Nelson — but which the State Prosecutor refused to pursue;
3. An order that the prosecutor turn over all discovery materials that the prosecutor has received to date from other agencies but which has been withheld from the Iron Eyes defense team;
4. An acknowledgment that Chase Iron Eyes intends to present multiple necessity defenses, including the defense that the actions he took were to prevent the violation of the constitutional rights of Native Americans.
Where: Morton County Courthouse, 210 2nd Ave. NW Mandan, ND 58554
When: Wednesday, Apr. 4, at 1:30 p.m.
Why: The state has refused to cooperate in handing over evidence related to the Iron Eyes defense.