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South Dakota wrongful death case changes venue

RAPID CITY, S.D. - Three non-Indian young people face a wrongful death civil lawsuit in the death of Robert "Boo" Many Horses that occurred almost four years ago.

A civil suit was filed in Walworth County on July 19, 2000 on behalf of Many Horses' foster mother and his estate, but because of pre-trial publicity a change of venue was requested and granted.

Legal documents state that a group of young people had been drinking and listening to music in a field on the outskirts of Mobridge. Many Horses was said to have passed out. The group drove back to town where Layne Gisi put him upside down in a garbage container. Those involved said it was a joke.

Many Horses, a physically challenged person who suffered from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, was found dead the next morning in a Mobridge garbage can.

"The four knew where he lived, yet they decided to put him upside down in a trash can in an alley just two blocks from his home," said Charles Abourezk, Rapid City attorney for the Many Horses Estate.

None of the defendants faced criminal charges in the June 30, 1999 death of Many Horses. The American Indian community was very upset over the dismissal of charges and race relations in Mobridge, where the incident took place, and in the surrounding areas. The case has become a symbol of the lack of equity of justice in the American Indian community, said Abourezk.

The summer of 1999 was an especially heated time. In addition to Many Horses' death, American Indian homeless were found dead along a creek in Rapid City, two men were found bludgeoned to death on the southern boundary of the Pine Ridge Reservation, and a young woman was killed by a car near the Sisseton-Wahpeton Reservation.

American Indians across the state were stymied about what action to take when none of the deaths were resolved with arrests that stuck. Still today, no one has been criminally charged in any of the cases.

The U.S. Civil Rights Commission was called to South Dakota to listen to the concerns of American Indians and also to federal and state law enforcement and judicial representatives about why there is a perception of non-equality of justice for American Indians in the state.

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In the Many Horses case, criminal charges against Layne Gisi, Jody Larson, Ryan Goehring and Joy Lynne Hahne were dismissed at the preliminary hearing when Magistrate Judge Tony Portra found there was not enough evidence to prove the charges against them. All defendants are now over the legal age.

When Judge Portra dismissed the charges in the Many Horses case he made it clear that there was an offense committed, but that the elements of the offenses had not been met.

The preliminary news released about the case indicated a hate crime. The FBI was called in late to investigate a hate crime, but had to prove it was the result of racial animosity, which it did not do.

States Attorney Dan Todd of Walworth County told the Civil Rights Commission that a few misdemeanors could be proven and then said the state had taken its best shot at prosecuting the case.

Goehring is no longer named in the civil wrongful death suit. Those charges were dismissed because he has agreed to cooperate, Abourezk said.

"We are pleased that the court recognized the difficulty in obtaining a fair trial in Walworth County with all of the pretrial publicity that has already occurred.

"The family is looking forward to a jury trial on the allegations of wrongful death and civil assault and battery arising from Robert's death," said Abourezk.

A jury trial is set to begin on May 5 in Aberdeen, S.D.

If any justice is to be accomplished, the civil trial will have to be resolved. Most of Indian country in the region still talks about this and many other cases that have not come to proper resolution.