Hundreds initially charged during the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy, dozens, so far, found not guilty or cases dropped
By C.S. Hagen
MANDAN – Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault II and Councilman Dana Yellow Fat were found not guilty Wednesday in a jury trial on charges of disorderly conduct.
The charges stemmed from an August 12, 2016 incident near the Cannonball Ranch, where Archambault was filmed pushing his way through a police line, and Yellow Fat grabbed a police officer’s arm. The video was definitive proof of guilt to many critics, but not to Bismarck attorney Erica Shively, of Elsberry & Shively, P.C., who defended Archambault and Yellow Fat.
“I also knew that police officers got in the way of my two clients headed down a public road that they had every right to travel down unrestricted by law enforcement,” Shively said.
Mclean County State’s Attorney Ladd Erickson prosecuted the case for Morton County. The jury spent 10 minutes in deliberation before unanimously announcing a not guilty verdict, according to Shively.
Yellow Fat was unsure of the outcome when he entered the courtroom, he said.
“Anytime you leave a major decision in the hands of others, no matter how confident you are, there is always that agonizing little voice saying, ‘I hope they get it right,’” Yellow Fat said.
“I really believe that justice is being served in many of the cases,” Yellow Fat said. “You can’t trample over people’s First Amendment rights to assemble and free speech without negative ramifications. Even if those ramifications are in the court of public opinion. The world watched as this unfolded, and now the world continues to watch it unfold in the court system.
“These small victories in the court system are a definite positive for our constitutional rights.”
“The State has charged out many cases for which there is no where near adequate evidence to convict folks who were simply exercising their First Amendment rights,” Shively said. “I believe that the state is relying on its belief that the media has sufficiently tainted both the juries and judges in these matters to a point where they will get convictions on bad cases. Thankfully, we are seeing that both the judges and juries, while many may disagree with the position of protesters, they are not letting that affect their duty to deliver justice.”
“It’s really good to hear that Morton County justices are administering the law in this saga,” Chase Iron Eyes, an attorney who also faces felony charges incurred during the Dakota Access controversy, said. “Archambault as well as Councilman Dana Yellow Fat led the early stages of the No DAPL resistance. I fully support the adequate and zealous defense of over 800 people criminally charged in this historic battle.”
Iron Eyes, who ran for Congress in North Dakota last year, said the verdict gives him encouragement. No trial date has been set for his case yet.
A total of 761 people were charged with crimes during the ten-month controversy, according to Morton County Sheriff’s Department. The movement drew more than 20,000 people from across the world to Standing Rock, and ran the state a bill in excess of $38 million, bringing in police from five different states, the National Sheriff’s Association, the mercenary outfit TigerSwan, and criticism from the United Nations.
Dozens of activists’ cases stemming from the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy have been dismissed, with only a few being found guilty. On May 25, three felony and misdemeanor charges related to piloting a drone against Aaron Sean Turgeon, also known as ‘Prolific the Rapper,’ were dismissed after Surrogate Judge Allan L. Schmalenberger, a former North Dakota Supreme Court Justice, reviewed the case. Shively also defended Turgeon, she said.
“Of course I knew I was not guilty, but proving it in court is an entirely different thing, and that’s what we did,” Turgeon said in a video outside of the Morton County Courthouse. He said friends and activists surrounded him when police attempted to confiscated his drone. Without their support, he would not have had the video evidence he needed to prove his innocence.
“A lot of times what you’re being shown by police officers is not true, and I knew it, but it’s not about knowing it, it’s about proving it.”
“The police officers were clearly coached by the State’s Attorney to fabricate evidence contrary to the facts by falsifying affidavits on their reports in support of their preliminary hearings,” cooperating attorney Danny Sheehan said.
“Aside from the fact that we had a very thorough and fair judge in this case which made a huge difference, a lot of the basis for the success in the case today was the support of the water protectors and our client Sean’s video evidence that exposed the falsehoods in the state’s case,” cooperating attorney Doug Parr from Oklahoma City said. “One of my concerns is that the charges in this case appear to have been fabricated to justify the no-fly zone that was imposed in late October of last year.”
Ten cases were dismissed by the Morton County State’s Attorney office on May 9, and two other cases were also dismissed on March 30, according to the Water Protector Legal Collective.
“Oil may be flowing under Lake Oahe, but the arc of the moral universe still bends toward justice,” The Water Protector Legal Collective stated in a press release. “Water protectors are winning the fight against the head of the “black snake” in the courts, and this Movement has inspired so many to continue this fight elsewhere. These are still sacred times.”
On May 18, the United States District Court dismissed a lawsuit filed by Dakota Access, LLC against Archambault, Yellowfat, and other activists. The pipeline company filed a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) lawsuit, after activists blocked the pipeline’s path in 2016. Dakota Access, LLP claimed it incurred damages of up to $75,000, but Judge Daniel Hovland found that DAPL could not prove its case, thus, the federal court had no jurisdiction.
While Standing Rock activists’ cases are being dismissed, the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline has already sprung two leaks, according to the Williston Herald, the Associated Press, and media outlet Business Insider.
On March 3, 84 gallons spilled from a leak where two sections of the pipeline connect in Watford City, and then two days later a smaller leak of 20 gallons occurred in Mercer County, according to Business Insider.
Yellow Fat is relieved to have the experience behind him, he said.
“After 10 months, having my trial continued several times, and feeling the stress of deciding to testify or not, it’s a good feeling to put this behind us. My family has been totally supportive, and I appreciate everything they have done in spite of me having to face these charges.
“To the hundreds still awaiting their day in court, stay positive, keep the faith, stay in prayer. Have faith in the system.”