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

Over 20,000 people live in the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. Many of them have to travel over five hours to attend a federal court hearing.
Irina Zhorov
Over 20,000 people live in the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. Many of them have to travel over five hours to attend a federal court hearing.

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.

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Irina Zhorov is a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She earned her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and an MFA from the University of Wyoming. In between, she worked as a photographer and writer for Philadelphia-area and national publications. Her professional interests revolve around environmental and energy reporting and she's reported on mining issues from Wyoming, Mexico, and Bolivia. She's been supported by the Dick and Lynn Cheney Grant for International Study, the Eleanor K. Kambouris Grant, and the Social Justice Research Center Research Grant for her work on Bolivian mining and Uzbek alpinism. Her work has appeared on Voice of America, National Native News, and in Indian Country Today, among other publications.