The long-delayed murder trial of American Indian Movement (ALM) activists Paul Skyhorse and Richard Mohawk opens Wednesday amid defense charges that FBI and local authorities have improperly tampered with case.
Skyhorse, 33, and Mohawk, 27, were arrested in October, 1974, for the apparently motiveless murder of George Aird, a Los Angeles cab driver. Aird's body was found stuffed in a drain pipe, savagely beaten and stabbed 17 times, with a lock of hair cut off - an apparent throw back to Indian scalping rituals.
Since their arrest, the case has been through the longest series of pretrial motions in California history. Earlier this year, the trial was moved from Ventura, 40 miles north of Los Angeles, down here after the localbar association put on a skit called "The People against Tonto" which allegedly ridiculed the two defendants.
According to chief defense counsel Leonard Weinglass, Skyhorse and Mohawk are on trial more for their ALM involvement than for any connection to the murder. Originally, two Indians - Marvin Redshirt and Marcella Eaglestaff - and a white teenager, Holly Broussard, were charged with the crime. But later they were given limited immunity to testify against Skyhorse and Mohawk.
"Sure it's a political trial," said Weinglass, a longtime defender of political radicals including Symbionese Liberation Army members William and Emily Harris. "They're going after these two ALm organizers without any physical evidence - no murder weapon, blood stains, no anything - and are trying to get them for murder. This whole thing cries out for an explanation."
Peter Kossoris, deputy district attorney for Ventura County, denied any political motivation behind the trial.
"Our position is it's just another murder case," Kossoris said. "A murder is a serious thing, but the only issue is whether they did it or not."
Louis Samonski Jr., another Ventura County deputy district attorney and the man now leading the prosecution effort, acknowledged there is little physical evidence tying the defendants to the murder except for some Type A blood - the same type as Aird's - found on Skyhorses's boot after his arrest.
But Somanski said the prosecution is firmly grounded on the eyewitness testimony or Redshirt, Broussard and Eaglestaff, all of whom, he said, saw the defendants murder Aird.
Defense counsel also suggests that Skyhorse and Mohawk's case was improperly tampered with by Douglas Durham, now an admitted FBI informant but then a top AIM official. Durham successfully worked to disassociate AIM from the defendants during the period immediately following their arrests.
Weinglass said the role of Durham and Virginia Deluce, another FBI information will be explored thoroughly during the trial, revealing a possible FBI plot to "take advantage of this senseless murder."
John Morrison, an FBI spokesman in Los Angeles, refused to comment on the trial or Weinglass' statement, calling the affair "purely a local matter."
Since Durham surfaced as an FBI informant, AIM leaders, including Russell Means and Dennis Banks, have rallied to the support of Skyhorse and Mohawk. In addition, the National Council of Churches and the Southern California Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union are raising money to pay for the services of the defense team.
Today, on the eve of the trial, Weinglass filed a $2 million complaint in federal court here charging that Los Angeles and Venture County authorities coerced three Los Angeles County Jail inmates into giving false statements against Skyhorse and Mohawk. The three accused the defendants of forcibly taking food and committing sex with inmates. They said the defendants threatened to commit scalping murders on them, as they allegedly did to Aird, if they didn't obey.
In his complaint, Weinglass included depositions from the three men admitting they were coerced by authorities to make the false statements. Weinglass said he expects to use this incident and others to provide the basis for dismissal motions later on during the trial.
Los Angeles and Ventura County officials today denied the charge in the defense complaint.