After a group of Lakota children and chaperones said a group of executives at a hockey game in Rapid City, South Dakota poured beer on their heads and told them to “go back to the Res,” only one person faced criminal charges for disorderly conduct. That person, Trace O’Connell, was just acquitted, meaning nobody will be held accountable for what the Native American students and family members consider a hate crime.
On Tuesday, Magistrate Judge Eric Strawn decided not to convict O’Connell, weeks after the case was brought to court. In his verdict, the judge ultimately concluded the events did not actually happen. Beer was not poured intentionally, rather it was sprayed accidentally in “reaction to a very important score in the Rapid City Rush hockey game,” he wrote.
“This Court concludes that the City has not met its burden in proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the Defendant intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly uttered any words or performed any action which physically abused or threatened any person or persons in any public place, or which otherwise placed the person or persons in fear of safety of life, limb health, or property,” he continued. “The City has not proven that Trace O’Connell uttered any racially charged and confrontational words within the hearing of minor(s) and adult(s) at the ice arena.”
Back in January, a group of third through eighth grade students from the American Horse School attended a Rapid City Rush game to celebrate their academic achievements, but left abruptly when a group of white executives in a suite above them dumped beer on their heads and yelled racial epithets. Since then, the kids have been hesitant to leave Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, located outside of Rapid City, and adults have been outraged over the failure to bring harsher charges against the men involved.
“When the misdemeanor charge was announced, “nobody really said anything because [they] thought ‘okay that’s the first one, that’s probably the lesser charge,’” superintendent and principal Gloria Kitsopoulos previously told ThinkProgress. “And that was it. Everybody was just dumbfounded.”
When O’Connell was identified for his presence and possible involvement in the incident, the judge declined to involve a jury and keep jail time on the table. Hate crime and assault charges were avoided altogether.
“Court proceedings can be intimidating and it took a lot of courage for the young witnesses to step forward and provide their testimony,” lead prosecutor Joel Landeen wrote in response to Strawn’s verdict. “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.”