Civil Rights

Top Federal Prosecutor in South Dakota Takes Over Review of 56 Tribal Reservation Homicides From FBI


Stepping into the middle of a long-simmering tension between the Oglala Lakota Nation and the Federal Bureau of Investigation that has ignited strong feelings for decades, the top federal prosecutor in South Dakota is reviewing 56 homicides on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson has taken over the review from the FBI, brought in a private investigator from Rapid City and assigned his three best prosecutors to oversee the process, reports the Chicago Tribune in a Sunday article. An earlier Associated Press article details what tribal leaders asked Johnson to do.

At issue are 45 unsolved homicides and 11 others that reservation leaders feel resulted in unduly lenient prison sentences, the Tribune reports. Some date back to the 1970s, when a 1973 armed takeover on the site of the historic Wounded Knee massacre resulted in a more than two-month federal siege. Then, two FBI special agents were shot to death in 1975 while investigating reports of a robbery and assault on the reservation.

Leonard Peltier was convicted and is serving two life terms, but supporters contend he is innocent. A Leonard Peltier Defense Offense Committee website (click on initial page) discusses their views in detail.

If Johnson, who heads the U.S. Department of Justice Native American Issues Subcommittee, can resolve even one of the cold homicide cases, that would be a big step forward, many feel.

“I hope, I pray that a lot of people will come forward and we will achieve justice,” said Tom Poor Bear during a recent meeting with Johnson in Rapid City. He is vice president of the Ogala Sioux Tribe, the Tribune article recounts.

“Just one case,” Poor Bear pleaded with Johnson. “Can’t we solve at least one case?”

Related coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “DOJ Calls for Better Law Enforcement on Indian Reservations”

ABAJournal.com: “Justice System Offers ‘Tepid Responses’ to Sexual Assaults of American Indian Women”

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