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Justice in Indian country

Fired U.S. attorney had doubled prosecution rate

Part three

Editor's note: This week Indian Country Today continues an ongoing series that examines justice in Indian country. To share your comments, e-mail us at editor@indiancountry.com, using ''Justice'' in the subject line.

WASHINGTON - After 11 years as an assistant U.S. attorney in Reno, where most of the cases from federal crimes on Nevada's 27 Indian reservations were handled and where he had prosecuted many of them, Daniel Bogden became the U.S. attorney for Nevada and made American Indian issues a priority.

Bogden's wide experience with Indian-specific prosecutions and his relationships with many of the tribes in the state recommended him for a lead role on the Justice Department's Native American subcommittee, and he took it.

With the new priority in Nevada came more staff and budgeting for the reporting, investigation and prosecution of on-reservation crimes. A tribal liaison pushed for progress in all three areas, putting a face on his office's Native American program, Bogden told a National Congress of American Indians conference audience in Alaska in June.

The number of cases prosecuted on the Nevada reservations under Bogden doubled in 2001 over the previous year, he said. According to Arlan Melendez, vice president of the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada and chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, progress in prosecutions and communication continued during Bogden's tenure, though his record wasn't perfect and still more could have been done.

The progress ended abruptly in 2005 and 2006, when the federal budget for U.S. attorney offices declined and staffing in Nevada fell from 46 attorneys to 39. Then in late 2006, the Justice Department abruptly fired eight U.S. attorneys. Bogden was one of five among the eight who had taken a leadership role on DOJ's subcommittee on Native issues, according to recent testimony before Congress by Thomas Heffelfinger, the U.S. attorney for Minnesota at the time. Bogden himself disputed the department's stated reasons for his dismissal, which have also struck a national chorus of critics as unconvincing.

''I think we have to be concerned about the Washingtonization of the U.S. attorneys,'' he told the NCAI gathering. ''... after five and a half years as U.S. attorney, I was doing what I thought was excellent work.''

Melendez said Bogden's firing was a setback for law enforcement in Indian country. ''Without building a relationship with tribes, it's going to be more difficult, but they were doing better. ... I believe he was trying, but there again they're always short of resources. There have to be more resources is the bottom line.''

The Nevada tribes will take Bogden's firing as an advisory on where they stand, he added. ''When you see the Justice Department isn't really interested in Indian country, and then you see them fire U.S. attorneys who are taking an interest in Indian country, you formulate your opinions from that.''

Nevada's tribes have serious trouble with methamphetamine abuse and domestic violence against women, Melendez said. But as bad as either is the perceived reluctance of the U.S. attorney's office to prosecute infractions in Indian country that are not violent enough to qualify as major crimes. Major crimes in Indian country are within the federal authority of the U.S. attorney to prosecute, and lesser offenses are left to tribal courts. But justice often depends on the classification of crimes, Melendez said. For instance, the most vicious physical beatings are not classified as attempted murder. Unless the perpetrator pulls a knife, the U.S. attorney's office classifies the case as an assault. Attempted murder is a major crime, for the U.S. attorney's office to prosecute. Assaults are for tribal courts to take on and for the U.S. attorney's office to decline.

''Our main concern is getting crimes prosecuted. ... If there's not enough blood, they don't take the case,'' Melendez said.

Larry Cooley, chief of police for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, said there are times when his office and the tribe are not happy with decisions of the U.S. attorney's office, though he declined to discuss specific assault cases because of privacy rights. He offered a simple statement instead: ''The federal system doesn't handle crimes in Indian country appropriately. It just doesn't have a high priority.''

And despite the higher priority of Indian-specific prosecutions during Bogden's tenure, Melendez said the need for aggressive prosecution has grown in Nevada, a gambling mecca. ''Our state probably leads the nation because we're a 24-hour town. ... We're one of the fastest-growing states, too.''

Indian Country Today correspondent Kara Briggs contributed to this article.