9th Circuit affirms murder conviction on Tohono O'odham Nation

A view of the east face of Baboquivari Peak in Arizona. The peak is the most sacred place to the Tohono O'odham Nation. Photo by Kriscotta / Wikimedia Commons

A non-Indian defendant who questioned whether his homicide victim was "Indian" lost part of his case before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday.

Victor Reza-Ramos was indicted for the March 2003 murder of Jose Flores on the Tohono O’odham Nation in Arizona. He was charged under a long-standing law that applies the federal murder statute to any non-Indian defendant whose victim is an "Indian" person.

But even though the Indian General Crimes Act has been on the books since 1948, the 9th Circuit said Reza-Ramos raised a "question of first impression." The question was whether the burden of proving a victim's "Indian" status falls on the federal government or the defendant.

The answer is important because Reza-Ramos, as a non-Indian, would not be subject to federal prosecution if his victim was not an "Indian." Instead, he'd fall under state jurisdiction.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Oral Arguments in USA v. Victor Reza-Ramos

The 9th Circuit answered the question by concluding that it's up to the federal government to prove a victim's "Indian" status "beyond a reasonable doubt." And in this case, the court said prosecutors did that by showing Flores was an "Indian" by blood.

"Here, the evidence presented by the government included Flores’s death certificate, which stated that his race was '4/4 Tohono O’odham,' testimony that Flores was a Tohono O’odham tribal member, and a medical examiner’s report describing Flores as 'Native American,' Judge Sandra Segal Ikuta wrote in the unanimous opinion.

Additionally, Ikuta said the government presented "undisputed testimony" that Flores was a member of the Tohono O'odham Nation of Arizona, a tribe that appears on the list of Indian Entities Recognized and Eligible To Receive Services From the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"Because the victim was an Indian, Arizona did not have exclusive jurisdiction over the crime," Ikuta concluded in affirming the defendant's conviction of a charge of first degree premeditated murder.

The decision, though, was not a complete loss for Reza-Ramos. The court vacated his conviction on a felony murder charge because Ikuta said the crime was not connected to a burglary.

Still, the distinction may not matter much for Reza-Ramos. His conviction on a charge of first degree premeditated murder alone carries a mandatory life sentence, the U.S. Attorney's Office said in June 2010 following the jury trial.

According to the Bureau of Prisons, Reza-Ramos is 55 years old and is serving his sentence at USP Lewisburg, a high security facility with an adjacent minimum security satellite camp in Pennsylvania. He had been extradited from Mexico to face trial.

The 9th Circuit heard the case on March 11, 2013, but the submission was vacated in November of that year for reasons that are not explained in the decision. It was resubmitted last week so the court was finally able to resolve it.

The crime occurred at the Kisto Ranch, a property about 18 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Flores was the caretaker of the ranch when he was murdered.

The ranch was established by Edward Kisto, a late tribal council member. He preferred the site due to its close proximity to Baboquivari Peak, the tribe's most sacred place, The Tucson Citizen reported in October 2002.

9th Circuit Court of Appeals Decision:
US v. Victor Reza-Ramos (March 9, 2016)

Federal Register Notice:
Indian Entities Recognized and Eligible To Receive Services From the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs (January 29, 2016)

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