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Murder Case of Navajo Man Triggers Domestic Violence Warning

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A U.S. attorney said the “unbelievably brutal murder” of a Navajo woman resulted from “the type of violence we see far too often in our Native communities” in records of a case heard May 21 in the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Nathan Don Jack, 27, an enrolled Navajo Nation member from Hogback, New Mexico, appealed a life sentence for suffocating his wife by compacting dirt in her mouth and trachea, according to a state pathologist who noted that severe trauma to Jessica Shorty’s head also contributed to her death.

Jack contended the U.S. District Court in New Mexico erred when it did not instruct the jury that the government had to prove a potential heat of passion defense was absent in the second-degree murder charge. The federal appeals court, however, upheld the District Court, noting Jack was not convincing in his assertion that he was “provoked into a sudden rage.”

The circumstances of the 2009 murder were that after an argument, Jack had pulled Shorty feet-first from their home as she screamed for help, and later he and a neighbor took Shorty to the Northern Navajo Medical Center where she was pronounced dead, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.

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Jack’s stepfather said they were drinking that night and added that he “finally calmed down” his stepson, who returned much later in the night and killed Shorty, despite a time interval that could have allowed him to think about his actions, the court said.

Jack contended the evidence showed he killed Shorty “in a fit of enraged passion because he thought Ms. Shorty had been cheating on him,” the court said. Jack’s state of mind could have been a factor in reducing homicide to voluntary manslaughter, but in this case the evidence didn’t show when any alleged cheating occurred nor when Jack learned about it, so the jury couldn’t determine whether the mitigating factors were present, the court said.

Domestic violence, “if not addressed early, escalates and too often culminates in women suffering serious injuries and sometimes, as with Ms. Shorty, in death,” U.S. Attorney Kenneth Gonzales said after Jack’s sentencing in 2010. Gonzales pledged a sustained effort to reduce violence in Native American communities.