Law | Federal Recognition

9th Circuit reverses conviction over Indian status of defendant

The federal government must show whether a criminal defendant's "Indian" blood comes from a federally recognized tribe, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a split decision on Friday.

Damien Zepeda possesses a "Certificate of Enrollment" from the Gila River Indian Community, a federally recognized tribe in Arizona. It states that he has 1/4 "Pima" and 1/2 "Tohono O’Odham" blood.

The Gila River Indian Community consists of Akimel O’othom, also known as Pima, descendants. However, the court said the federal prosecutors failed to prove that Zepeda's "Pima" or "Tohono O’Odham" blood comes from a federally recognized tribe.

"The government introduced no evidence that either is a federally recognized tribe," the 9th Circuit said by a 2-1 vote.

Federal prosecutors attempted to into evidence the Bureau of Indian Affairs list of recognized tribes that includes the “Gila River Indian Community of the Gila River Indian Reservation, Arizona” and the “Tohono O’Odham Nation of Arizona." But the information was never presented to jurors to decide, the court ruled.

"Rather, the jury found that Zepeda was an Indian pursuant to [the Major Crimes Act] in the absence of any proof that Zepeda’s bloodline derived from a federally recognized tribe," the decision stated.

The 9th Circuit mentioned that Zepeda's brother, Matthew, testified of their "Pima" and "Tiho" blood. It's likely that Matthew said "T.O." rather than "Tiho" as "T.O." is a common way of shortening "Tohono O'odham" but this issue does not appear to have been addressed in the federal government's briefs.

As a result, the court reversed Zepeda's conviction under the Major Crimes Act. He was charged in connection with a shooting incident on the Ak-Chin Indian Community that left a victim severely injured.

Turtle Talk has posted documents from the case, US v. Zepeda.

9th Circuit Decision:
US v. Zepeda (January 18, 2013)

Related Stories:
9th Circuit rules two criminal defendants aren't 'Indian' (3/17)
9th Circuit reverses conviction in Indian status case (2/11)

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