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In Case Against Indigenous #NoDAPL Activist Chase Iron Eyes, Judge Accepts Plea Deal That Drops Most Serious Charges

On August 21, North Dakota state prosecutors offered attorney and activist Chase Iron Eyes a plea deal for charges filed against him. They stem from protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline on February 1, 2017.

The plea agreement dropped all serious charges against Iron Eyes, which included inciting a riot and criminal trespass. He faced a maximum of six years in state prison and would have lost his license to practice law.

It reduces his charges to a class B misdemeanor of disorderly conduct, keeping him out of jail and removing the risk that he may lose his license to practice law.

North Dakota Supreme Court Judge Lee Christofferson approved the plea deal on August 23.

Private military contractor TigerSwan identified Chase Iron Eyes as one of the leaders of the No DAPL movement during the protests to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline and conducted surveillance on him according to documents obtained by the Intercept. He ran as the Democratic candidate in the 2016 election to try to unseat incumbent Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer to represent North Dakota’s at-large congressional district.

In his first interview since the plea deal was offered and accepted, Iron Eyes explained why he accepted the deal.

“I’m ambivalent about accepting a plea agreement, but I have to make decisions that are beneficial to my family,” Iron Eyes declared. “At this point, I’m definitely feeling a sense of accomplishment and a sense that we’ve reached a measure of the mission to uncover and achieve truth and justice in my criminal trial.”

“For the first time ever at the behest of big (oil) extraction, private military contractors deployed their tactics, resources, public relations, and sophisticated operations that we’ve only been able to see in theaters of war in the Middle East and other places abroad,” he added.

Iron Eyes fought hard in court over the past year to have evidence related to his charges and conduct of Tigerswan released as part of the discovery process. These efforts, Iron Eyes said, were important due to these court cases being a part of challenging who gets to write history and build narratives around movements.

“When your life hangs in the balance, you are to be accorded a measure of discovery,”  Iron Eyes shared. “I did not feel I had received the discovery evidence I deserved and felt that justice was denied to me in three separate occasions during my hearings. We just took a beating in court, and the message was being sent to me that justice could be denied in my case.”

Iron Eyes’ legal team agreed with his assessment of the discovery process. “Every single time we filed a subpoena to take a deposition, the state would file an objection and put us in front of a judge to explain to him what we were going to ask,” Daniel Sheehan, chief counsel of the Lakota People’s Law Project and lead attorney representing Chase Iron Eyes, described. “Tigerswan lawyers joined in the case with the state insisting we not be allowed to take any out of state depositions.”

A judge agreed to set up a hearing on August 23 to decide on whether Iron Eyes’ defense team had a right to those depositions.

But Sheehan explained that on August 20 his team filed 3,000 pages of situation reports, internal emails, interviews, and documents from TigerSwan to present to the court that the Dakota Access Pipeline moved the pipeline based on racial bias and TigerSwan had racially profiled the Lakota people.

“We were going to be taking the deposition of TigerSwan CEO Jim Reese to show his background,” added Sheehan. “We wanted to get all the evidence on the record to show TigerSwan had developed an anti-indigenous racial bias.”

Furthermore, Sheehan noted his legal team received information from people inside TigerSwan alleging the contractor’s Chief Security Office John Porter would break into the radio communications of water protectors and give movement commands.

Porter was a prospective witness to be deposed in the case. The day after Iron Eyes’ legal team filed the evidence in anticipation of the hearing on out of state depositions, the prosecution offered to dismiss the charges.

Though Iron Eyes’ case has concluded, Sheehan and the Lakota People’s Law Project are currently considering their next options to pursue obtaining this evidence from TigerSwan and the Dakota Access Pipeline company, Energy Transfer Partners.

Chase Iron Eyes is one of several hundred water protectors who has faced criminal charges for protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. Around 850 water protectors were arrested and charged during protests.

Out of hundreds of cases, 349 individuals had their cases outright dismissed. Thirty-six individuals were acquitted at trial, and more than 300 individuals had their cases settled with plea agreements or pretrial diversion to probation.

Five water protectors accepted non-cooperating plea agreements to federal charges with substantial prison time, including Red Fawn Fallis, who was set up by an FBI informant and sentenced to nearly five years in prison. Three water protectors await sentencing on federal charges this fall.

Sixty-five year-old Mary Redway  one of only two water protectors who was convicted and sentenced to jail in charges filed by the state of North Dakota. “I was arrested October 22, 2016 as part of the first mass arrests. It was a prayer walk. We were kettled, arrested, and the local jail couldn’t take all of us so we were sent off to other parts of the state,” Redway recalled.

She spent two days in a Fargo, North Dakota jail before she was released.

Nearly one year later—and two weeks before her trial date, she was indicted with three additional charges: physical obstruction, disobeying a safety warning during a riot, and disorderly conduct. All charges besides the disorderly conduct charge were eventually dropped, and Redway was sentenced to six days in jail (minus the two days she previously served).

Since leaving jail, she’s stuck around in North Dakota as a full-time volunteer for the Water Protector Legal Collective, handling nearly all of the cases for water protectors.

“I was originally planning to do other things, but I saw and visited the Water Protector legal collective around the time of my trial and felt they were overwhelmed and understaffed so I volunteered to help. It’s been over a year since that date ,and I’m still here.” (Redway is in the process of appealing her initial conviction of disorderly conduct.)

Unlike Redway, Chase Iron Eyes does not face the risk of serving time in prison. He won’t lose his license to practice law, but he has to report the disposition of this case to South Dakota’s Supreme Court, Bar Association, and Bar Examiners. Based on the plea deal, the case will be sealed and completely dismissed if Iron Eyes does not violate the law within a 360-day period.

“It’s been a long road to where we stand today. I am not the only one to be criminalized, and there are still others for whom justice has been denied and find themselves on the other side of the politicization of our cases,” concluded Iron Eyes.

“As much as it hurts to read the plea agreement, it would hurt my family even more to lay my future in the hands of North Dakota jurors in Morton County, where I was going to be put on trial, who admitted that 80 percent of them were biased against water protectors, against those they saw as outsiders to agitate our quiet and sleepy state.”

Reality Winner. Photo via standwithreality.org
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Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato is a Freelance Journalist based in Gainesville, Florida. His writing has appeared in The Intercept, The Hill, The Guardian, Denver Post, Truth-Out, and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @MSainat1