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Krieger recalls his representation of the Lakota at Wounded Knee

Assistant Editor Regular News

Krieger recalls his representation of the Lakota at Wounded Knee

Theresa E. Davis
Assistant Editor
Some lawyers inspire visions of heroism worthy of Denzel Washington’s final courtroom scene in Philadelphia.

Miami criminal defense attorney Albert J. Krieger is most decidedly one of those lawyers.

Krieger, who celebrated his 59th year as a lawyer, was honored with the Selig I. Goldin Memorial Award by the Criminal Law Section at the Bar’s recent Annual Convention. Presented to a member of the legal community who has made a substantial contribution to the criminal justice system, the award is given in memory of Goldin’s competence, service, and compassion.

Krieger, ostensibly best known for defending John “The Teflon Don” Gotti and Joseph “Joe Bananas” Bonanno, exemplified these attributes when he represented dozens of Lakota Sioux involved in the 1973 uprising at Wounded Knee in South Dakota.

“You bring skills; you bring technique, but you also bring something that only comes from the heart, something that puts a little rigidity in your backbone; something that does more than make you study — it gives you principle and adherence to principle,” Krieger told a standing-room-only luncheon crowd. “That’s what Wounded Knee meant; that’s why it’s a watershed to me.”

Krieger explained that Wounded Knee got off to a strange start. Usually he arrived at court early but was an hour late this time, and everyone — “a few lawyers, some defendants, some Indians, a bunch of marshals” — was waiting for him to talk to the judge, Warren K. Urbom, about a problem the defendants had with the Treaty of 1868.

Krieger was amused because he was “a stranger in a strange land” and had not planned on talking to a judge whom he “had never met and didn’t know anything about, except he was a Nixon appointee, which made me worry,” he joked. Krieger said he knew even less about the Treaty of 1868 but decided, “Hell, I’ve come this far, I’ll go all the way.”

The issue, Judge Urbom said, was the Indians not rising in court when the opening proclamation included the words, “Please rise.” Urbom said they just sat there, which “is something that really tears at the fabric of our country,” Krieger told the audience sarcastically.

Krieger explained to Urbom that the defendants would not rise for him because they interpreted rising as an undeserved concession to the United States. The Lakota Sioux chose not to stand when Urbom — or any judge — entered the courtroom because they recognized neither the government of the U.S. nor its representatives.

“Judge Urbom responded: ‘That’s the problem? That’s what we’re waiting for?’ and he turns to the bailiff and asks him to delete ‘please rise’ from the opening proclamation,” recounted Krieger.

Krieger contrasted Urbom’s magnanimity in this instance with that of another South Dakota judge in Minnehaha County.

Krieger said when the Minnehaha County judge came out on the bench, true to form, the Native American defendants in the courthouse would not rise. The judge adjourned the court and threatened the lawyers with contempt, but to no avail. The defendants still did not rise the next day or the day after that.

Finally, Krieger said, the judge and the bailiffs “used the obvious technique: beating them with their clubs.” Krieger said the defendants were beaten “to the extent that one of the defendants lost an eye, and the other defendants — one was a woman — were beaten unmercifully because they wouldn’t rise. There was a crowd outside the courthouse and there was an enormous amount of damage done to the courthouse. It was a full-fledged riot,” he said.

Krieger said the situation begged this question: Why couldn’t the Minnehaha County judge do exactly what Judge Urbom did without incident? The trial eventually continued in a location outside of Sioux Falls where the Indians could remain seated, but “an awful price had been paid.”

Returning to the subject of Wounded Knee, Krieger said he was chatting with his client and Judge Urbom was in his chambers on a cold, gray morning when Sioux braves clothed in porcupine vests and sleeveless shirts, rabbit-fur interwoven in their plaited hair, burst through the double doors of the courtroom.

“In my recollection, there had to be in excess of a hundred of them,” Krieger said. “They stormed into that courtroom and all that we could think of was the riot at the Minnehaha courthouse.”

Krieger said he didn’t know whether the judge knew what was going on when he exited chambers, but “Urbom came out and walked to his left, went to the three steps that would take him up to the bench, put one foot on the first step, and then noticed that the Indians had stood.

“To a person, they rose for Judge Urbom. They rose for what he represented. We at the counsel table recognized what had gone on, and unashamedly, tears came to our eyes. We knew we were at a moment when our representation as defense lawyers — attempting to see that justice was done, attempting to see that there was a vindication of these rights and principles which we hold so dear — we were at a living moment of rededication to due process, to presumption of innocence, to the character and nature of our court system, how fortunate we had been to participate in a trial where the defense lawyers did a good job, and how much we rely upon the integrity and intelligence of the judges,” Krieger said.

The function of the lawyers, combined with the character and nature of the judge, allowed for “justice in its finest character,” Krieger said.

They lived through it and saw not only justice, but — after 200 years of genocide — a repair of the relationships between Americans and the Native Americans, he said.

It came about because lawyers tried a case in front of a good judge, and “most importantly, the prosecutors were honorable, vigorous, intelligent, and principled,” Krieger said. “Such a simple formulation, and unfortunately, it was a rarity.

“It gave to me a visceral understanding and an appreciation of what we are all about; what we should be all about. I left that courtroom knowing that I could participate in a practice that has an effect far beyond my client and the courtroom itself; knowing that we have a responsibility to behave in such a fashion that from our participation there is an understanding of what has made this country a great illumination in a darkness of hatred. We owe it to ourselves and to generations to come to make this world better than when we came in.”

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