Jurisdiction issues hamper Rocky Boy’s wife who wants justice for her son

ROCKY BOY’S RESERVATION – On the wall of her home in Rocky Boy’s reservation, Janet Bacon Sutherland has a collage of family photos, many of which include her son Elias.

“He used to come through the front door all the time and had the biggest smile on his face. He was always saying ‘Hello, Mom’ and hugging everyone. I mean, every mornings. So when he passed away and the next day he wasn’t coming, I saw his face and that big smile and that’s what keeps me going,” Bacon said, struggling to hold back tears.

She said Elias was shot and killed in August 2021 and a woman was arrested shortly after, but as of Wednesday she was only in jail for shooting a gun — even though, Sutherland said, there were other charges pending, including negligent homicide.


Elias, son of Janet Bacon Sutherland

“The criminal investigator here told me that his case is closed and that he has turned it over to the FBI. So I have to call the FBI and ask them. But the FBI keeps telling me that the investigation is still open “, explained Sutherland. .

MTN News attempted to contact the prosecutor on the reservation to confirm that the woman was in jail, that she was charged with shooting a firearm in connection with this case and to ask about the status of the other charges, but we haven’t received a response yet.

“Indian Country jurisdiction may seem complex, but once you really get into it, it really isn’t hard to understand,” said Craig Overby, head of the FBI’s Indian Country Special Jurisdiction Unit.

overby said federal law allows the agency to get involved in crimes on reservations because tribes have limited power to convict someone, and states can’t get involved to prosecute because they don’t have jurisdiction over most reservations .

“A lot of tribal courts, to comply with federal law, maybe the maximum sentence they can give a person would be two years,” Overby explained.

Why do the reserves have so little convicting power? This is dictated by federal law.

“In the past, and until today, there are certain tribal courts in which the judge and, perhaps, the lawyers who essentially serve as lawyers did not pass the bar or did not attend law school,” Overby said. “Tribal courts may not be as advanced or sophisticated as, say, federal courts. So I think the purpose of some of these restrictions in the past was to wait for the tribal courts to develop.

Overby also pointed out, however, that many tribal courts have lawyers and bar-certified judges and that efforts have been made to give tribal courts more sentencing power.

“For example, the Violence Against Women Act put in place mechanisms for tribes to qualify to sentence people up to nine years,” Overby said.

Overby pointed out that the FBI investigates cases in conjunction with reservations and says that sometimes tribes may choose not to prosecute or delay prosecution knowing that the sentence federal prosecutors could get is more than the tribal court can. to obtain.

This means that surveys can sometimes take a while.

Overby said, “Sometimes the tribe will say, ‘Hey, we know this case is being pursued in federal court and we’re going to hold off on our prosecution while we wait for what happens in federal court,'” Overby said. out of 20 cases and a new homicide happens and you kind of have to drop whatever you’re working on and respond quickly to this emergency.”

As the investigation into Elias’ death continues, Sutherland said the family is asking people on the reservation who want revenge not to act.

Janet Bacon Sutherland

Janet Bacon Sutherland

“For me, I don’t want to see another person sitting in jail because of their revenge. I want them to be home with their family. I want them to be surrounded by the love that, maybe , this girl never had.” said Sutherland.

Sutherland does not despair of getting answers to his questions about his son’s case and, possibly, justice.

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