PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) – The trial of seven Narragansett Indians arrested for scuffling with police who raided a tribal smoke shop could reopen a painful period for Rhode Island and its only federally recognized American Indian tribe.
Lawyers on Thursday selected 16 jurors who must decide whether Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas, the tribe's leader, and six other defendants are guilty of misdemeanor crimes ranging from disorderly conduct to assault.
Each charge carries a maximum one-year prison sentence, although lawyers think it is unlikely any of the defendants would face jail time if convicted. The trial was to begin Friday.
The arrests occurred on July 14, 2003, when state police raided a tribal smoke shop in Charlestown that was not collecting state taxes. Jurors were taken to the now-vacant shop on Thursday so they could view the area before testimony begins.
Frustrated when its latest proposal to build a casino failed in 2003, the impoverished tribe began selling tax-free cigarettes in a small, prefabricated shop on its land.
A federal appeals court later ruled the shop was operating illegally. In return for receiving 1,800 acres of land in 1978, the tribe signed a treaty subjecting that land to state law, including tax provisions.
State police obtained a court warrant to search the shop, and Gov. Don Carcieri ordered them to enforce it. A brawl erupted in front of TV cameras as police surged onto tribal land.
State police ran past tribal police officers telling them to stop. A state trooper was knocked to the ground, and her arm was repeatedly slammed in a steel door. One defendant choked a police officer. A police dog bit a tribal council member. Thomas was wrestled to the ground when he purportedly tried to interfere with an arrest.
Immediately after the raid, Carcieri said state police ignored his orders to withdraw if they met resistance from the tribe or its supporters.
Rhode Island's Supreme Court tried for months to avoid the trial because some justices feared it could become politically and racially charged. The high court forced prosecutors and the defense to meet with a court-appointed mediator, but they could not reach a plea deal.
Defense attorneys argued that the trial should be moved out of southern Rhode Island because of a history of bad blood there dating to a 1675 massacre of Narragansett Indians.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.