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The Rise of Tribes and the Fall of Federal Indian Law
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Court upholds state jurisdiction in Arapaho man's murder case
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Filed Under: Law

A city that lies within the original borders of the Wind River Reservation is no longer Indian Country, the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled on Monday.

In a unanimous decision, the court acknowledged that Riverton was once part of the reservation. But the city was removed in 1905 by an act of Congress that opened the land to non-Indians, the justices said.

"While the city of Riverton may be located on lands that at one time were within the external boundaries of the reservation, those lands are no longer part of the reservation, and are not 'Indian country,'" Chief Justice Barton Voigt wrote for the court.

The decision means the state has jurisdiction over crimes that are committed in Riverton. The Northern Arapaho Tribe and the Eastern Shoshone Tribe argued that the city is still part of their shared reservation.

The tribes asserted their rights in the high-profile case of Andrew John Yellowbear Jr., an Arapaho man who was found guilty of murdering his 22-month-old daughter, Marcella Hope Yellowbear, in July 2004. The victim's mother, Macalia Blackburn, who is also Arapaho, pleaded guilty to being an accessory.

"Marcella's parents were long time meth abusers," Arapaho Chairman Richard Brannan said in testimony last March to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

Yellowbear is serving a life sentence without chance of parole. Had he won his appeal, he would face prosecution in the federal system.

In the midst of his prosecution by state authorities, Yellowbear tried to move his case to federal court. But U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer refused to intervene and said he would wait for the state courts to resolve the dispute.

State officials contend the issue was in fact settled long ago. They cited three prior decisions from the Wyoming Supreme Court that said the Wind River Reservation had been diminished.

In a slew of cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has laid out the factors by which a reservation can be diminished. Courts must look to Congressional intent, as well as historical factors.

The Wyoming Supreme Court said the 1905 act was clear in its intent to diminish the Wind River Reservation. The tribes "do hereby cede, grant, and relinquish" their land rights in exchange for payment, according to language in the law.

The court also pointed out that 92 percent of the population in Riverton is non-Indian and that governmental services are provided through the state. "We conclude from all these factors that it was the intent of Congress in passing the 1905 Act to diminish the Wind River Indian Reservation and to remove from it the lands described as 'ceded, granted, and relinquished' thereunder," the court said.

In a second part of the ruling, the court said the trial judge erred in instructing the jury to find Yellowbear guilty of child abuse if he was aware of abuse but did not try to stop it. The court ordered Yellowbear's conviction and sentenced to be amended to reflect proper charges.

On a third issue, the court said the local county attorney did not commit prosecutorial misconduct during his closing statements in the trial. The court said the remarks, although "extreme," did not prejudice the jury against Yellowbear.

Get the Decision:
Yellowbear v. Wyoming (January 14, 2008)

Relevant Links:
Eastern Shoshone Tribe - http://www.easternshoshone.net
Northern Arapaho Tribe - http://www.northernarapaho.com

Related Stories:
Federal judge won't intervene in state prosecution (6/15)
Hundreds walk in memory of slain Shoshone child (7/5)
Federal judge won't intervene in state prosecution (6/15)
Wyoming tribes dispute state prosecution of murder (05/01)
Arapaho man convicted of daughter's murder (04/03)
Jury sees mother confessing to daughter's murder (3/23)
Arapaho man heads to trial for murder of daughter (03/06)
Judge won't move Arapaho man's murder trial (02/16)
Judge affirms state jurisdiction in murder case (01/24)
State jurisdiction at issue in Wyoming murder case (11/17)
Utah court blocks state jurisdiction on hunting (11/11)
Witness dispute in tribal member's murder trial (10/19)
Judge agrees to move tribal member's murder trial (08/23)

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