Defendant Acquitted in Slaying of Tribal Officers
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) _ Jurors who acquitted a Navajo man in the burning deaths of two tribal police officers in December said the verdict was due to a lack of concrete evidence and witnesses’ changed stories.
After deliberating five hours, the 12-member jury acquitted Ben Atene Jr. of all counts Monday following his second trial in the deaths of officers Roy Lee Stanley and Andy Begay.
While family members met the verdict with shouts and tears, Atene, 24, remained somber.
″All I can say is my cousin, brother and half brother are innocent too,″ he said.
His cousin Thomas Cly, 22, and half-brother Vinton Bedoni, 31, were convicted of first-degree murder in August and sentenced to life in prison. The same jury, after deliberating for more than 46 hours, could not agree on a verdict for Atene and U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Greene declared a mistrial.
Charges against Atene’s brother, Marques Atene, 22, were dropped when prosecutors acknowledged they did not have enough evidence to gain a conviction.
Two jurors said the lack of concrete evidence led to their verdict.
Assistant U.S. Attorney David Schwendiman said he was relieved that the case was over.
″It was a messy and ugly thing to have to live with for a year,″ he said. ″I just hope this verdict helps to heal the wounds. People need to get on with their lives.″
Following a murder and trial that has sharply divided the residents of Monument Valley, Atene said he was not sure whether he would be able to go home again.
″I lost all my job, I lost all my brand new pickup. That’s all I can say,″ Atene said.
Atene’s father said earlier that the family’s truck was repossessed when his son was no longer around to help make the payments.
In final arguments, prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed that the verdict hinged on whether jurors believed five prosecution witnesses who testified they saw Ben Atene at the Dec. 4, 1987, desert bonfire drinking party where the officers were shot.
All five witnesses originally denied being at the party, but two decided to testify for the prosecution after they were charged with perjury.
Prosecutors contended that Atene was at the drinking party and later was seen at the remote Copper Canyon site where the officers and their vehicles were doused with gasoline and set afire.
Atene and members of his family said he went to bed early that night and arose before dawn to take part in a traditional Navajo healing ceremony.
Several defense witnesses testified that three of the prosecution witnesses were elsewhere on the night of the bonfire.
Prosecutors argued that Atene did not pull the trigger but his involvement throughout the incident made him equally guilty.