Indian Country Today Media Network has learned unofficially that the jury in a federal court trial in New York state has returned a verdict of not guilty against four men charged with operating an illegal casino and illegally transporting, possessing and using gambling devices “within Indian Country.”
Felony charges for operating the Three Feathers Casino at the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe’s reservation in Akwesasne and transporting gaming devices were dropped against Anthony Laughing Sr., 66, William Roger Jock, 52, and Thomas Angus Square, all Mohawk men who live in Akwesasne—the Mohawk territory that straddles the St. Lawrence River and borders New York, Ontario and Quebec – and Joseph Hight, 44, of Georgia, according to Charles Kader, clerk for the People of the Way of the Longhouse. A fifth Mohawk defendant, James Gray, who was named in the complaint, but never served, remains a fugitive. The complaint was filed in federal court last December by the Office of United States Attorney in Plattsburgh, New York.
The trial was part of a schism between the elected government of the federally recognized St. Regis Mohawk Tribe (SRMT) and the traditional Men's Council of the People of the Way of the Longhouse—Kanienkehaka Kaianerehkowa Kanonhsesne. Three Feathers Casino opened in the summer of 2011—without state or federal licensing or approval from the SRMT council—with 400 Class II bingo machines in a 55,000-square-foot building that had previously housed another unlicensed casino and lounge. The Men’s Council set up a gaming commission and operated Three Feathers by standards that met or exceeded those of the National Indian Gaming Commission, according to the casino’s spokesman at the time.
The SRMT’s Gaming Commission issued a cease and desist order to the Three Feathers Casino on January 27, 2012, ordering the facility to stop gaming operations and shut down. “Under Tribal Law, there are only two licensed gaming properties in Akwesasne,” former SRMT Chief Mark Garrow said at the time. “They are the Mohawk Bingo Palace and the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino. Any other gaming facilities are unlicensed and operating illegally.”
Kader said he had received a call from Square around 2 p.m. on Thursday with an update of the court proceedings at the federal district court. “The defense rested its case on Monday. On Tuesday morning there were closing arguments and the jury received that case at midday on Tuesday. So the jury essentially deliberated for two days and returned its verdict today,” Kader said. “It was reported that the sound of laughter was coming from the jury room next to the court room on Wednesday.”
The jury has been seated since Halloween so jury members have heard six weeks of testimony from government agencies and witnesses subpoenaed by the government. Kader said the jury was described as a group of professional career types. The single “person of color” on the jury was an Asian man, Kader said. Jury members were not sequestered, Kader said, but were allowed to return home. They were instructed by the judge not to read about the case or do their own research on it.
Not all witnesses for the defense were called. “Defense lawyers cross examined the prosecution witnesses – it was a strategy to let the prosecution witnesses serve as the primary defense,” Kader said. “I say this based on hearsay because I wasn’t in the courtroom, but it appears the jury had a full measure of both sides of the story based on the cross examination.”
It is not known at this point if the prosecution will appeal the verdict.
It is also not known what the broader implications are for other groups within federally recognized tribes who may want to conduct gaming on tribal land. Another story will follow when court documents are available.