The search for justice for a Lakota Sioux man wrongfully charged with murder, told here for the first time by his trial lawyer, Gerry Spence.
This is the untold story of Collins Catch the Bear, a Lakota Sioux, who was wrongfully charged with the murder of a white man in 1982 at Russell Means’s Yellow Thunder Camp, an AIM encampment in the Black Hills in South Dakota. Though Collins was innocent, he took the fall for the actual killer, a man placed in the camp with the intention of compromising the reputation of AIM. This story reveals the struggle of the American Indian people in their attempt to survive in a white world, on land that was stolen from them. We live with Collins and see the beauty that was his, but that was lost over the course of his short lifetime. Today justice still struggles to be heard, not only in this case but many like it in the American Indian nations.
What People Are Saying
"Renowned defense attorney and activist Spence casts a long look backward at a haunting case. 'As a prosecutor,' said Spence’s opposite in a trial four decades ago, 'you do the best you can with the witnesses you’ve got.' That trial concerned a murder charge against a young Lakota man named Collins Catch the Bear, who had been raised with every disadvantage: alcoholic parents, foster families, juvenile detention, low self-esteem, and a quickness to cry tears of rage and act out, a tendency that sent him to a mental hospital, where 'a psychiatrist…concluded that he suffered from a ‘behavior disorder of childhood with unsocialized aggressive reaction, moderate to severe.’ ' Adds Spence, 'in short, this fourteen-year-old boy was pissed to the max.' The boy was a Lakota who did not speak the language or know much of his people’s history; when he came into the orbit of Russell Means and the revived American Indian Movement of the early 1980s, he was eager to join. Collins was soon swept up in trouble, accused of killing a white man who had threatened him and several other Sioux. The facts didn’t add up. As Spence writes of the victim, 'his right hand was completely covered with blood, but not a drop of blood was on the pistol. Someone had put the pistol in the man’s hand after he was dead.' Furthermore, the key witness for the prosecution was 'a professional liar,' but the case went on. Collins was convicted and sentenced, though a sympathetic judge lightened his sentence, an act of kindness that did no good. The young man was soon in and out of jail for other offenses and came to a bad end, in Spence’s view 'a modern-day martyr' whom life had dealt nothing but bad hands. A fine work of true crime and a lesson in how justice can be poorly served despite good intentions. A fine work of true crime and a lesson in how justice can be poorly served despite good intentions.” Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"Spence (Court of Lies) relates the circumstances surrounding the 1982 arrest and subsequent trial of Collins Catch the Bear, a young Lakota Sioux accused of killing a white man in the Black Hills. Before discussing his own involvement in Catch the Bear’s defense, Spence describes the bleak childhood that Catch the Bear—born to impoverished, alcoholic parents on the Standing Rock Reservation—spent in foster care and boarding schools, a peripatetic existence that led to struggles with alcohol, drugs, and crime. Spence lays out the scanty evidence against the defendant, the conflicting stories of the eyewitnesses, and the political climate surrounding Catch the Bear’s involvement with Russell Means’s controversial American Indian Movement (AIM). As Spence takes readers through the defense team’s investigations, he shares the thought processes that shaped his conviction of Catch the Bear’s innocence, along with his suspicions of a deeper conspiracy." Library Journal
"Trial lawyer Spence (Police State: How America’s Cops Get Away with Murder) unveils in this sad, sobering account the horrific and heartbreaking story of Collins Catch the Bear, a Lakota Sioux who became Spence’s client after he was charged with the fatal shooting of a white man in 1982 near the Yellow Thunder Camp outside Rapid City, S.Dak. As Spence meticulously builds his case for Catch the Bear’s innocence, he describes how law enforcement officers manipulated witnesses by preying on their fears of the police, prosecutors focused on their own political goals to the detriment of justice, and activists tried to cover up the death and only succeeded in fueling the flames surrounding the case. He also addresses ingrained discrimination against and systematic marginalization of Native Americans, noting, “In those days (and perhaps today in some quarters of the state), Indians were viewed with approximately the same affection as coyotes, rats, and other vermin.” Spence, who has never lost a case, was ready to go to trial and was certain he would win, but Catch the Bear fired him and pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, second degree manslaughter, with a maximum sentence of 10 years. Spence considers Catch the Bear a martyr because he believed his client pleaded guilty to save the encampment; had Catch the Bear been tried and acquitted, Spence suggests, there would have been reprisals from the white community. This frightening work makes clear the ways the justice system can fail to protect the country’s most vulnerable citizens." Publishers Weekly
“In a story chock full of vengeance, treachery, racism, tragedy, and despair, Gerry Spence recounts the torments endured by his young client, Oglala Lakota Collins Catch the Bear, before, during, and after his court room battles in 1982-1983. The trials occurred near the end of a period of intense Indigenous activism spearheaded by the American Indian Movement. Catch the Bear was unjustifiably prosecuted for events that had taken place when he was living at the Yellow Thunder Camp of Native activists in the Black Hills of South Dakota, lands held as sacred by the Lakota and other Tribal nations. Over those years, Spence witnessed, fought, and chronicled the personal and institutional racism that continues to typify the experience of Indigenous peoples living in the U.S. There are no heroes in this intimate, unvarnished account, and Spence spares no one, not even himself. He has thus managed to evoke the dark and lonely struggle that will be all too familiar to Natives and is critical reading for those non-Natives who seek to understand more about Indigenous experiences and history.” —David Wilkins (Lumbee), professor, University of Richmond