Ben Atene Jr. was enjoying his first day of freedom in six months Tuesday, after a federal jury cleared him of all charges that he participated in the killing of two Navajo tribal officers.
"He's real tired," Atene's lawyer, Loren E. Weiss, said Monday evening, shortly after the verdict. "We're all very relieved. We're feeling quite vindicated."This is apparently the end of court action in a pair of Utah's most grisly killings.
The night of Dec. 4-5, 1987, officer Roy Lee Stanley tried to break up an illegal beer party at a bonfire in a wash near Monument Valley. Instead, Vinton Bedoni fought him, got him in a wrestling hold, handcuffed him, and then one of the men shot him with his pistol.
When officer Andy Begay arrived at the gully soon afterward, he, too, was shot.
Both wounded men were loaded into one of their police panel trucks and driven to Copper Canyon near Lake Powell. There the trucks were doused with gasoline and set afire, and the policemen perished in the blaze.
Atene was the only one of four men charged whose case was not settled in a trial this summer. Because of this, he was retried, with assault charges added to the murder and firearm allegations.
In July, when the government rested its case, prosecutors dismissed charges against Marques Atene, saying it could not prove them. Vinton Bedoni and Thomas Cly were convicted Aug. 2 of first-degree murder and using a firearm.
Greene sentenced Cly and Bedoni to life in prison, plus five years for the gun charge.
When Ben Atene Jr. was retried, defense lawyers Lonnie DeLand and Weiss relied on alibi testimony from Atene's relatives. Witnesses said Atene was at a "Blessing Way" ceremony for his injured brother, Albert, the night of the murders.
The testimony of government claiming he was at the bonfire and Copper Canyon was discounted by the defense lawyers. They said the five crucial government witnesses had changed their stories, some of them numerous times.
Earlier, two of the government's own witnesses were charged with perjury, and the charges were dropped when they decided to cooperate.
Shortly before 8 p.m. Monday, the all-woman jury assembled before U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Greene and rendered their verdict: Ben Atene Jr. was not guilty of aiding and abetting in the first-degree murder of Stanley and Begay, not guilty of the assault on the officers, not guilty of using a firearm in the killings.
The verdict came about five hours after jurors began deliberating.
Asked if Atene would comment, Weiss said, "He's not one to talk much . . . I don't think he's surprised. He's very relieved."
Atene had been in custody since he was arrested six months ago. Part of the time he was incarcerated in the Salt Lake County Jail. Then after the first trial, he was under 24-hour supervision in the federal halfway house in Salt Lake City. Weiss believes jurors didn't feel convinced Atene was guilty, and thought the government failed to meet its burden of proof.
"It is a great relief for me," the lawyer said. "I've been doing this (serving as legal counsel) for 17 years, and this is only the second time in 17 years I've ever represented anybody that I felt was innocent."
He complimented the government lawyers - Assistant U.S. Attorneys Stewart Walz and David Schwendiman - as "the two finest prosecutors that this state has."
Asked if he felt the FBI was over zealous in naming Atene, Weiss said, "Well,that was part of his defense."
Immediately after the verdict was announced, Greene ordered Atene's release.
"We drove out there (to the halfway house), we packed his bag, and picked him up," the lawyer said. "It was great, really great."
Atene then accompanied Weiss to his home where supporters celebrated. Severalof his brothers were there, while his parents were celebrating at the home of another brother.
Weiss said he did not know if Atene would return to Monument Valley.