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Civil suit against State Police for alleged brutality on Onondaga Nation in 1997 begins

CNYCentral file photo from May, 1997.
CNYCentral file photo from May, 1997.
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SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- 15 members of the Onondaga Nation are finally getting their day in court for a violent clash with State Police alongside Interstate 81 nearly 20 years ago.

Jury selection for the civil trial in Federal court began earlier today. The judge warned those jurors that the case is a little unusual, and that was an understatement. 15 plaintiffs - who are each representing themselves - gave 15 individual opening statements, presenting their accusations against 51 defendants who are either current or former New York State Troopers.

In an opening statement, one of the Onondaga Nation members suing the State Police said the troopers did not give any warning and "just walked onto private property and started assaulting people." Nation members say State Police broke up a religious ceremony that was underway around a fire.

Video taken at the scene shows multiple people - including Onondaga Nation member Robert Bucktooth - being hit with batons. Bucktooth said today in court he was hit 55 times while on the ground.

The state Attorney General's office is representing 50 current and former troopers being sued in the case. In an opening statement, an assistant attorney general said there was some confusion but "these troopers had a good faith belief they were clearing protesters from an interstate right of way." He also said they did not believe anyone's constitutional rights were violated and "any force that was used was reasonable and necessary under the circumstances."

12 of the defendants were involved in the arrests, three were supervising officers and 31 were present during the protest in question. One officer is being represented by a private attorney.

Video is going to play an important role in the trial. Video of the confrontation will be shown before witness testimony is heard. The video in the player at the top of this article shows NBC3's coverage of the incident from May, 1997.

A few years ago the state reached a $3 million settlement to be paid among 98 people who were roughed up, beaten and illegally arrested during a May 18, 1997 protest along Interstate 81 which turned violent. A large force of troopers wearing riot gear used batons and excessive force to drive the protesters away from Route 81. The State Police believed the protesters were going to blockade Interstate 81 where it crosses the Onondaga Nation territory south of the city of Syracuse.

Some of the beneficiaries of that settlement rejected their share, instead pursuing a public trial.

At the time one of our photographers found himself in the middle of the controversy when he was confronted by a trooper while filming the incident. He was arrested, and the video he shot was temporarily seized.

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The charges against our photographer were later dropped.

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