Ben Atene Jr. "was an active participant" in the murders of Roy Lee Stanley and Andy Begay, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Schwendiman told a jury Monday.
Schwendiman spoke during closing arguments at Atene's trial on charges of aiding and abetting in assault, murder and illegal use of firearms in the death of the two Navajo tribal officers on the night of Dec. 4-5, 1987.Thomas Cly and Vinton Bedoni were convicted of the murder in August and sentenced to life in prison plus five years. The jury failed to reach a verdict on Atene.
The defense maintains Atene was attending a religious ceremony and that prosecution eyewitnesses have told sharply conflicting stories in the past.
Defense lawyer Loren Weiss suggested that a chief prosecution witness, Boyd Atene, may have had "evil and insidious reasons" for committing perjury, such as a reward offered in the case.
Boyd Atene testified he saw Ben Atene kick Stanley in the side while the officer lay handcuffed after a fight with Bedoni.
Ben Atene kicked Stanley "hard enough to cause marks that came back from the dead to accuse him," Schwendiman said, referring to bruises that showed up in an autopsy.
A person needs only an instant to decide to kill, Schwendiman said, charging that Ben Atene opened the door of one of the officer's panel trucks when Bedoni sloshed gasoline inside before it was set on fire in Copper Canyon, a remote area near Lake Powell.
"What else could he have been thinking? What else could have been in his mind?" the prosecutor told the 12-member, all-woman jury.
Schwendiman attacked the defense alibi that Atene spent the night at a "beauty way" ceremony held at his home to cure injuries of his brother.
Relatives who saw the defendant believe Atene was at the ceremony all night, the prosecutor said, while others only remember seeing the defendant the next morning, after the murders.
Weiss said no one would deny the gruesomeness of the officers' death and expressed sympathy to the victims' families, adding, "Please don't compound that tragedy by wrongfully convicting Ben Atene."
He pointed out the government's responsibility to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. "This entire case rests solely and squarely on the believability of five people."
Every government eyewitness, the defense lawyer said, has told conflicting stories to the FBI, the federal grand jury or investigators.