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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — A South Dakota man accused of using racial slurs and spilling beer on American Indian students during a hockey game was cleared of a disorderly conduct charge Tuesday, more than a month after a trial in the controversial case attracted more than 200 people.
Trace O'Connell was charged after authorities alleged he sprayed beer and used racially charged language near a large group of Native American students during a minor league hockey game in Rapid City. Native American groups said the January incident highlighted racial issues in the city and criticized the charge as too lenient.
Magistrate Judge Eric Strawn released a ruling Tuesday siding with O'Connell, finding that the 41-year-old man from Philip unintentionally spilled beer on the students while celebrating an "important score" at a Rapid City Rush game. The judge also said the city didn't prove O'Connell said any racially charged words near the students.
Other than one woman whose testimony was "unreliable," the judge wrote, no one testified that they heard or saw O'Connell say something racially charged.
"Obviously, we are disappointed in the decision," City Attorney Joel Landeen said in a statement Tuesday. "We felt all along the city had a strong case with enough evidence to move forward for conviction. The disorderly conduct charge was the strongest charge the city could bring."
O'Connell's attorney, Michael Butler, said the favorable decision wasn't unexpected and his client is relieved, "but you can't undo what's been done publically."
"There's been some pretty vile and reprehensible things said about him by people who have no idea what they're talking about," Butler said.
O'Connell was among about 15 people in a suite that was directly above the area where about 50 students and seven chaperons from American Horse School were sitting. The school is in Allen, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
School officials did not return requests for comment Tuesday.
Strawn in July oversaw O'Connell's two-day trial, which was moved to a high school auditorium and drew as many as 250 spectators. The judge had already ruled out the possibility of jail time, meaning the case would not go to a jury. Had he been convicted, O'Connell would have faced a maximum punishment of a $500 fine.
Landeen told the court in July that O'Connell sprayed beer and it wasn't an accident. At best, the prosecutor said, it was reckless.
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