Narragansetts to challenge smokeshop verdicts


PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Seven members of the Narragansetts Indian Tribe have been cleared by a jury of 12 out of 16 misdemeanor charges resulting from a notorious raid by state police and their attack dogs on the tribe;s smokeshop almost five years ago.

But tribal leaders and their attorneys vowed to challenge the remaining four guilty charges against three members, including Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas.

Thomas and Randy Noka were cleared of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, but found guilty of simple assault. Hiawatha Brown was cleared of resisting arrest, but found guilty of simple assault and disorderly conduct.

John Brown, Adam Jennings, Bella Noka and Thawn Harris were all cleared of the remaining misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and obstruction.

''Obviously, we're disappointed,'' Thomas said. ''We think everyone should have been acquitted. I'm certainly happy for those that were, but we're going to go back on April 28 and take some other actions.''

The case has been closely watched throughout Indian country.

Gov. Donald Carcieri, who ordered the raid and was exempted from testifying by another court, issued this statement after the verdict was rendered:

''Governor Carcieri respects the jury's verdict in this case. While the governor had no role in the prosecution or trial, he is satisfied that the rule of law has been affirmed. He also wants to reiterate once again his support for the State Police and the great job they do for the people of Rhode Island.

''With the conclusion of this trial, Governor Carcieri hopes that the Narragansett Indian Tribe and the State of Rhode Island can put the smoke shop incident behind us and move forward into a more cooperative future.''

That's not likely to happen any time soon, said John Brown, Narragansett council member, historic preservation officer, and medicine man in training. ''It ain't over till it's over.''

The tribe will file a motion for a new trial and ''some motions that relate to the jury,'' said Kevin Bristow, one of the tribe's defense attorneys.

Jurors heard 25 witnesses over 16 days of testimony, watched hours of videos and reviewed photos of the fracas after police arrived at the smokeshop to execute a warrant that witnesses said was not shown until half an hour into the raid.

Some of the jurors were visibly upset as they were polled for their verdicts. One juror cried and wiped her tears, saying ''Sorry,'' as she gave her verdict. Another teary juror was handed a tissue by a sheriff.

Juror John A. Cassidy III, a former Marine who works in home improvement, said he knew nothing about the raid before the trial and was shocked by what he saw, according to a report in the local Providence Journal newspaper.

''I was appalled by what happened,'' said Cassidy, 61. ''It was an awful, awful attack.'' He said he didn't believe the testimony of most state troopers and plans to write U.S. Sen. Jack Reed and U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy with other jurors to ask them to investigate why the attorney general didn't charge any of the state police.

They cleared the Narragansetts of the resisting arrest charges because of ''the violence of police officers. It was absolutely deplorable,'' he said.

Ann Marie Zodda, 51, a school administrator, said the jurors came from widely varying mindsets to start, but they all made concessions in dissecting each count, according to the same report. ''There was a lot of emotion. It was a horrible situation that maybe never should have ...'' she said before trailing off.

Tribal members were not happy, either.

Bella Noka, who was cleared of charges of assaulting a trooper, disorderly conduct and obstructing an officer trying to place her husband, Randy, under arrest, expressed bitter disappointment as she left the courtroom, according to the Providence Journal.

''They took our land, another life and now they want more,'' she said, repeating, as she said during testimony, that she had been pregnant at the raid. She lost her baby afterward due to hemorrhaging, she said.

Bristow said the jurors' dissatisfaction was clear.

''What we got from them after the fact was that they were outraged at the conduct of the police and that they did not believe many of the state police witnesses who were attributing certain actions to individual Narragansetts. But they also read the judge's charge on the law and thought if they saw what they considered to be a violation of the law independent of the state police conduct and lack of credibility that they needed to access that. That's what some of them told us resulted in their verdict.

''We don't agree with the verdicts. We don't think it's supported by the evidence. We think ultimately it's all going to come in front of the judge,'' Bristow said.

The Narragansetts opened their tax-free smokeshop July 12, 2003, over Carcieri's objections. The night before the raid, tribal leaders and the governor discussed the issue, agreeing that it would be settled in court, according to Doug Luckerman, one of the tribe's attorneys. There was no mention of a police raid on the smokeshop, Luckerman said, but the raid took place the next day and devolved into a scuffle that was televised nationwide. The police claimed the sale of tax-free cigarettes was illegal and shut down the shop.

Tribal members testified during the trial that they believed operating the smokeshop was legal under the assumption that the tribe had the sovereign right to do it.

The case has wended its way through state and federal courts and at the end of 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a 1st Circuit majority ruling that the state has authority over tribal lands.

At the time of the raid, the tribe was making one of its numerous attempts to gain support for a gaming facility. The state works vigorously and successfully to oppose every effort the tribe makes to open a casino because the state itself has a stranglehold on gaming: it has used state laws to create a state monopoly on all gaming activities and has built an empire that includes a lottery, and two hugely successful slot operations that last year grossed almost $450 million, according to the latest report by the Center for Policy Analysis at University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. The state takes 60 percent of the revenues, with the balance going to the facility owners - gaming magnates Sol Kerzner and Len Wolman.

''We did everything we could to get this jury to understand what happened and why it happened - that this was politically motivated conduct; that the state police work for the governor; that while the state was in dispute with the tribe regarding, one, their ability to open a smokeshop on tribal land, and, two, casino issues, that this was a show of force to send a message to the Narragansetts from the governor, using the governor's police force and basically telling them who was boss,'' Bristow said.

The governor had several options to stop the sale of untaxed cigarettes, including asking a court to issue a restraining order until the case could be heard.

Selling untaxed cigarettes in Rhode Island is a misdemeanor punishable by a $100 fine.

''It's silly,'' Bristow said. ''They didn't even charge anybody with unlawful possession and sale of cigarettes.''