Law
3:52 pm
Tue March 11, 2014

Justice Can Be Hard To Find With Courts Far From Tribal Lands

Originally published on Thu March 13, 2014 7:29 am

Access to federal courts is difficult for people living on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. The majority of cases are tried nearly five hours away. Other Western states, like Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona, also lack courthouses close to tribal lands.

For the people there, this isn't just an inconvenience — the community has lost confidence in the notion that justice is something that's available to them.

John Crispin's son was murdered in 2011. He talks about it on a snowy night in the parking lot of a convenience store in Ethete, Wyo., on the Wind River Reservation.

"Just right up the road a ways here — just a little ways away from my home — It was a senseless murder," says John Crispin. "He was 33 at the time."

It was a brutal crime and because Wind River is a small, tight-knit community Crispin knew his son's murderers. They were neighbors. The men pled guilty and their sentencing happened about 15 miles from Ethete. Crispin attended.

About five months after his son's burial, tragedy struck again.

Crispin's nephew was killed in the drunk-driving wreck. His daughter, who was behind the wheel, was charged with killing him.

"Truck flipped over. My sister called me, said 'better go down to Riverton, your daughter's been truck wrecked,'" says Crispin. "So I got down there, they said somebody got killed, which I didn't know. I asked 'who's that?' She started crying."

But this trial took place in Cheyenne, about 300 miles away. Crispin couldn't make it down to Cheyenne for the proceeding, though his mother went.

"It was hard for my family to go down there — to go that far for something that happened here," says Crispin. "Why couldn't they just have it like they did with my son, just right here in Lander. It would've been easier to go."

Serious crimes in Indian Country involving Native Americans as either victims or perpetrators go through the federal courts. About a quarter of Wyoming's federal cases are from Wind River — yet the majority of cases go to Cheyenne.

Poverty on the reservation is high, which makes travel inherently difficult. Often people lack reliable cars, public transport is practically non-existent, winter driving in Wyoming can be treacherous, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Kerry Jacobson, says a multi-day trip can be a financial hardship.

"Although the government does pay a per diem and travel expenses in the form of gas money — or we can even pay a driver — we do not repair old vehicles," says Jacobson. "We do not pay for new tires for the long trip, there's no exception made for bad roads."

The federal government pays the expenses of anyone subpoenaed, but it doesn't offer any aid to family members who just want to be there.

The distance also raises a bigger problem, Jacobson says. The jury that sits in judgment of Indian perpetrators rarely includes Indians. She says white juries often don't have a context for the crimes and the facts being presented to them.

"So it really is like trying to present a whole new culture or society to 12 people who are living just worlds apart from the reservation," Jacobson says.

U.S. Attorney for the District of Wyoming Kip Crofts says the distance creates limitations not just for a few individuals, but for the entire community.

"Those kinds of crimes are community crimes, there are victims, there are victims' families, there are witnesses, defendants, defendants' families — I think they need to be able to see those trials and see what happens," Crofts says.

He says venue rules explicitly state that court should be held where it's convenient for the parties.

"We snatch these people off the reservation and bring them down to Cheyenne and nobody knows what happens sometimes," says Crofts. "There's no sense of justice or restitution or all those issues."

A recent report by the Indian Law and Order Commission, a federal council established by the U.S. Congress, looked at public safety and justice in Indian Country. The report's main recommendation was to give more authority to tribes to administer justice.

Absent that, the report says, the federal government could at least move justice services closer to reservations. That's something Wyoming's U.S. Attorneys and federal judges are trying to do.

"I think people would be more involved and be more supportive," says John Crispin, whose daughter was tried in Cheyenne. "We're here, we could all have our say — they can listen to us, instead of way far away where nobody can be there."

He says there's plenty of apathy on the reservation as is — and invisible justice just adds to it.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

We head now to Wyoming, where legal recourse for Native Americans can be a long way away. That's not just a figure of speech, it's physical reality. On the Wind River Indian Reservation, for instance, the majority of cases are tried nearly five hours away. Other Western states, such as Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, also lack courthouses close to reservations.

Wyoming Public Radio's Irina Zhorov reports this is not just an inconvenience. For people on these reservations, it also affects confidence in the justice system.

IRINA ZHOROV, BYLINE: John Crispin's son was murdered in 2011. He talks about it on a snowy night in the parking lot of a convenience store in Ethete, Wyoming, on the Wind River Reservation.

JOHN CRISPIN: Just right up the road a ways from here, just a little ways away from my home. It was a senseless murder. He was 33 at the time.

ZHOROV: It was a brutal crime. And because Wind River is a small, tight-knit community, Crispin knew his son's murderers. They were neighbors. The men pled guilty and their sentencing happened about 15 miles from Ethete. Crispin attended. About five months after his son's burial, tragedy struck again.

CRISPIN: Truck flipped over. My sister called me, says better go down to Riverton, your daughter's been truck wrecked. So I got down there, they said somebody got killed, so I didn't know, and I asked who's that? She started crying.

ZHOROV: His nephew was killed in the drunk driving wreck. His daughter, who was behind the wheel, was charged with killing him. But this time, it went to trial, which took place in Cheyenne, about 300 miles away. Crispin couldn't make it down to Cheyenne for the proceedings, though his mother went.

CRISPIN: It was hard for my family to go down there, to go that far for something that happened here. Why couldn't they just have it like they did over here with my son, just right here in Lander? It would've been easier to go.

ZHOROV: Serious crimes in Indian country involving Native Americans as either victim or perpetrator go through the federal courts. About a quarter of Wyoming's federal cases are from Wind River, yet the majority of cases go to Cheyenne. Poverty on the reservation is high, which makes travel inherently difficult. Often, people lack reliable cars. Public transport is practically nonexistent. Winter driving in Wyoming can be treacherous. And Assistant U.S. Attorney Kerry Jacobson says a multi-day trip can be a financial hardship.

KERRY JACOBSON: Although the government does pay a per diem and travel expenses in the form of gas money, or we can even pay a driver, we do not repair old vehicles. We do not pay for new tires for the long trip. There's no exception made for bad roads.

ZHOROV: The federal government pays the expenses of anyone subpoenaed but not family members who just want to be there. The distance also raises a bigger problem, Jacobson says. The jury that sits in judgment of Indian perpetrators rarely includes Indians.

JACOBSON: It's tough feeling like we do have a jury of peers.

ZHOROV: She says white juries often don't have a context for the crimes and the facts being presented to them.

So it really is like trying to present a whole new culture or society to 12 people who are living just worlds apart from the reservation.

KIP CROFTS: Those kinds of crimes are community crimes. There are victims, there are victims' families, there are witnesses, defendants, defendants' families. And I think they need to be able to see those trials and see what happens.

ZHOROV: That's U.S. attorney for the district of Wyoming, Kip Crofts. He says venue rules explicitly state that court should be held where it's convenient for the parties.

CROFTS: We snatch these people off the reservation and bring the down to Cheyenne, and nobody knows what happens sometimes. There's no sense of justice or restitution or all those issues.

ZHOROV: A recent report by the Indian Law and Order Commission looked at public safety and justice in Indian Country. The report's main recommendation was to give more authority to tribes to administer justice. Absent that, the report says, the feds could at least move justice services closer to reservations. That's something Wyoming's U.S. attorneys and federal judges are trying to do.

CRISPIN: I think people would be more involved and be more supportive.

ZHOROV: That's John Crispin again, whose daughter was tried in Cheyenne.

CRISPIN: We're here. We could all have our say. They can listen to us instead of way far away where nobody can be there.

ZHOROV: He says there's plenty of apathy on the reservation as is and invisible justice just adds to it. For NPR News, I'm Irina Zhorov in Laramie, Wyoming. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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