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United States v. Banks and Means (Wounded Knee)

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Synopsis

United States v. Banks and Means is a 1974 case in which the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) defended American Indian sovereignty at Wounded Knee and represented leaders in the American Indian movement charged with conspiracy and assault in a standoff with the FBI.

Description

After a nine-month trial, Chief Judge Fred J. Nichols of the Federal District Court of South Dakota dismissed all of charges against Russell Means and Dennis Banks, the two leaders of the American Indian Movement occupation of Wounded Knee, on grounds of governmental misconduct. Six charges had been dismissed earlier for reasons of legal insufficiency and the failure of the prosecution to present enough evidence to warrant submission to a jury.

During the course of the trial, Judge Nichols found, among other things, that the FBI had altered or suppressed key documents, committed illegal electronic surveillance, and had probably persuaded law enforcement officials in River Falls, Wisconsin, to drop rape and sodomy charges proffered against the government’s star witness. Moreover, he stated from the bench that the special agent in charge of the Minnesota Division of the FBI (which covers three states, including South Dakota) had perjured himself on the witness stand. At one point the judge took the unprecedented step of impounding all FBI files when it was discovered that many important documents crucial to the defense had been suppressed and altered versions had instead been submitted to the Court. In addition, the Court pointed out that the prosecution had presented one witness who claimed he had observed the defendants commit incriminating acts in Wounded Knee at a time when he was, himself, a prisoner in the Pine Ridge Reservation Jail.

During deliberations, after the jury had already voted 12-0 to acquit both defendants of the conspiracy charge, one juror became seriously ill and, though the defendants were willing to accept an 11 juror verdict, the government refused to do so on the ground that the jury was about to find the defendants not guilty on all charges. At this point, Judge Nichols stated that he had had enough and dismissed the entire prosecution with the comment that the government had “polluted the waters of justice.”

The government appealed Nichols’ decision but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of charges.