judge who presided over wounded knee trials will step down from the bench in april

by Tim Phillips

On Thursday, Judge Warren Urbom announced that he will retire in April. Urbom managed cases against more than 130 defendants arising from the 71-day American Indian Movement occupation at Wounded Knee in 1973. He dismissed charges against the majority of the activists and found 6 guilty. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned 4 of those convictions.

On August 14, 1974, Judge Urbom acquitted the defendants in U.S. v. Jaramillo, because military equipment and officers were used at Wounded Knee contrary to the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. That Act limits the military’s role in domestic law enforcement activities to situations involving congressional authorization or a presidential declaration that a civil disorder exists. As Army personnel at Wounded Knee influenced decisions and serviced and maintained equipment on loan to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Marshals, Urbom concluded that there was a reasonable doubt as to whether law enforcement officers were lawfully engaged in the performance of their official duties.

Urbom gained the trust of the defense committee, because his acquittals saved many defendants from being tried by South Dakota juries. Yet some legal workers and defendants subsequently felt betrayed, such as when Urbom found activists guilty or concluded that Indian tribes didn’t have complete sovereignty. As John William Sayer wrote in Ghost Dancing the Law,

It is true that the rule of law, particularly as enforced by judges like Nichol and Urbom, offered the Wounded Knee defendants some protection from excessive government abuse. But the defendants and their attorneys, including those who give credit to Nichol and Urbom, quickly point out that without their well-organized and very public campaign around the trials, the rules might not have provided protection or allowed alternative voices to be heard in the courtroom.

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