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Wheels of justice turn too slowly for Cherokee’s taste

Weary of criminals languishing in the system before finally facing their day in court, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians hopes to forge a new partnership with the U.S. Attorney’s office, getting their own prosecutor into federal court.

Tribal council this month called on the U.S. Attorney to deputize Cherokee’s tribal prosecutor as a Special Assistant United States Attorney, allowing him to pursue cases in federal court, where many of the more serious crimes committed on the reservation end up.

“It would provide them with a prosecutor that can handle those crimes that occur here, regardless of what kind of crime or where it happened,” said Jason Smith, the tribal prosecutor.

When someone commits a crime in Cherokee, bringing them to justice as a complicated process. Jurisdiction on the reservation can be labyrinthine.

Was the criminal a tribal member? Was the victim? Was it a major crime? Did it happen on the reservation?

It’s so complicated that Smith created a chart to remind him whether an offender should be prosecuted in tribal court or, if they’re not a tribal member or the crime is major, in federal court.

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Under the current systems, prosecuting those deemed federal cases fall to the U.S. Attorney in Asheville. But the problem is that he can’t get to them all, and there are some — small-time white collar crimes and the like — that can take a lot longer to reach and fall into a sort of grey area on what cases the feds pick up and what they don’t.

So tribal members who are victimized by non-tribal members — a non-Indian husband abuses his Indian wife or child, for example — they’ve got to rely on the federal court to get their case heard. And it could take a while.

Smith hopes that, if he’s appointed as a special U.S. Attorney, it’ll help move those cases through more quickly. It never hurts, he posits, to have someone with a little more local knowledge and vested local interest following a case through the court system.

“It would help in terms of having closer knowledge of the cases that are going on in tribal court and in federal court,” said Smith. “Despite our best efforts, I don’t always know what’s going on in Asheville with federal cases, and they don’t always know what’s going on in Cherokee with Cherokee cases.”

Cherokee isn’t the only place with these problems. Tribal lands all over the country are faced with the same quandary, any many are in a more precarious situation.

“It’s a bad problem here, but it’s much worse everywhere else,” said Bill Boyum, chief justice at the Cherokee tribal court. By comparison, he said, the situation here is great.

Boyum pointed to tribes out West, some with reservations as large as states, that have one or two federal prosecutors trying to take on every case from an area far too massive and unwieldy for just one person.

“It’s kind-of inherent in the system,” said Boyum. “You would never have that in a state court. You have a state court in every county.”

And over the last year, special U.S. attorneys have been appointed all over the country to deal with the problem. The impetus was a big piece of federal legislation called the Tribal Law and Order Act. Among other things, it recognized that there is problem, and though the law didn’t require special U.S. Attorneys for tribes, it strongly recommended them.

In North Dakota, special U.S. Attorneys were appointed as part of a bigger push to build trust in tribal law enforcement that was waning. Elsewhere, they’ve been appointed just to deal with the growing backlog of cases that harried prosecutors don’t have enough time to handle.

The Eastern Band has been having conversations, both in the government and the community, about what a boon this would be to the effort to decrease crime on the reservation.

But they’re still waiting for the federal government to act.

Don Gast, the U.S. Attorney in Asheville who handles Cherokee cases kicked to federal court, said that he wasn’t ready to comment on what Smith would do, if appointed, or how the system would work — who would take which cases, how would cases be prioritized?

He did, however, say that his office is working on a decision. He’ll be making an official announcement “in the near future,” he said, but didn’t specify when.

If he is appointed, Smith said he would probably need another hand or two to keep up with the tribal caseload. He stepped up to lead prosecutor from the assistant prosecutor role when former tribal prosecutor Roy Wijewickrama won a spot as a district court judge last November. His former post still hasn’t been filled.

Smith has been using contract lawyers to shoulder the caseload, but taking on federal cases, too, would probably create the need for more contractors or another prosecutor altogether.

He’s waiting for the official announcement, though, before thinking too much about its ramifications. Being deputized to try cases in federal court would be better for the tribe, even if someone else had to be hired to pick up the slack in tribal court.

And now it’s just a waiting game, while the U.S. Attorney’s office decide if they’ll honor the tribe’s request.

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