Federal Courts’ Distance From Wind River Reservation A Hardship

Feb 7, 2014

Federal Court House in Cheyenne.

Major crimes committed on the Wind River Indian Reservation end up in federal court. But federal courthouses in Wyoming are really far from the reservation, which leads to logistical, constitutional, and social problems. Wyoming Public Radio’s Irina Zhorov reports.  

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

JOHN CRISPIN: Just right up the road a ways 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 court proceedings took place in Lander, about 15 miles from Ethete. Crispin was able to attend along with some family. He says the two men’s families were also there.

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

CRISPIN: Truck flipped over. My sister called me, said better go down to Riverton, your daughter’s been truck wrecked. Said that truck was laying on its top. So I got down there, they said somebody got killed, which I didn’t know, I asked who’s that, she started crying. I asked, ‘who got killed?’

ZHOROV: His nephew was killed in the wreck, his daughter behind the wheel. She was charged with killing him. But the court proceedings took place in Cheyenne. That’s about 300 miles from Ethete. Crispin couldn’t make it down to Cheyenne for the trial or her sentencing. He says he didn’t even know where she was sent to serve her time until she wrote him from prison.

CRISPIN: If it happens here, why can’t it be judged here? Why can’t they just come, say okay, we can just go to court right there so we can just be able to sit, see what they’re being charged with, and who’s gonna defend them, and so you can go over there and you can give them more support, instead of way somewhere where you can’t support them, you don’t know where they’re at, what’s going on, until everything’s done and over with.

ZHOROV: Crispin’s questions bring up issues of justice services in Indian Country.

Serious crimes committed in Indian Country that involve Native Americans as either victim or perpetrator go through the federal courts. About a quarter of the federal cases in Wyoming are from Indian Country. Yet the cases are split between federal courthouses in Casper and Cheyenne, both hours from the reservation. U.S. Attorney for the District of Wyoming, Kip Crofts, says it wasn’t always so. Lander used to have a courthouse. 

KIP CROFTS: Ironically, I was in a federal court hearing in that old courthouse when the new owner of the building or lessee or whatever he was came in and literally started measuring the curtains.

ZHOROV: Its closing - which Crofts says was basically the result of a terrible miscommunication - came just as other federal agencies opened offices near Wind River to better serve the reservation’s population. The distance now brings logistical problems. For one, poverty on the reservation is high, which makes travel inherently difficult. Assistant U.S. Attorney, Kerry Jacobson, says often people lack reliable cars, public transport is practically non-existent, and 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: Crofts says he’s even had to go pick a client and her three young children up when they broke down in the middle of a snow storm hours before trial.

And it’s not just the victims making the trip. Witnesses, law enforcement, and emergency room doctors are regularly subpoenaed to appear. And the government pays all of their expenses, which adds up. Then there’s family and community members who may want to attend a trial.

But there’s an even bigger problem. Crofts says venue rules explicitly state that court should be held where it’s convenient for the parties.

CROFTS: 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. 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: And 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: Jacobson says that’s a problem because white juries often don’t have a context for the crimes and the facts being presented to them.

JACOBSON: 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. 

ZHOROV: A recent report by the Indian Law and Order Commission looked at this issue. Wyoming’s Affie Ellis sat on the Commission and notes they made some recommendations.

AFFIE ELLIS: Our overarching recommendation would be for more tribal administration of justice at the local level.

ZHOROV: That means giving more authority to tribes. Absent that, the report says, the feds could at least move justice services closer to reservations or use magistrates to administer some of the services more locally. 

Crofts testified before the Commission and agrees with its recommendations. He says already Native Americans see federal courts as foreign courts and mistrust them. In Wyoming, the state’s federal judges are willing to schedule more local trials and try and fix the system, but borrowing the state’s courtrooms, which also have busy dockets in the region, is not easy.

John Crispin, for one, was disappointed with his experience. He says there’s plenty of apathy on the reservation as is and invisible justice just adds to it. Local trials would help, he says.

Ellis will testify before the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs about the report on Feb. 12th.

For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Irina Zhorov.