Law | National

Court decision highlights sentencing disparities in Indian Country

Gordon Lasley Jr., a member of the Meskwaki Tribe, is serving two consecutive life sentences in USP Terre Haute in Indiana for the brutal murders of his parents. Photo from Federal Bureau of Prisons

A member of the Meskwaki Tribe will likely spend the rest of his life behind bars in a case that highlights the disparate treatment faced by American Indians in the justice system.

Gordon Lasley Jr., 28, undoubtedly deserves to be held responsible for killing his parents. He was found guilty of two counts of second-degree murder for a brutal slaying that occurred at the family's home on the Meskwaki Settlement in Iowa.

But the two consecutive life sentences he received are drawing scrutiny from a federal judge who has repeatedly called attention to the harsher punishments that are doled out in Indian Country. Had Lasley been convicted under Iowa's second-degree murder law -- he indeed originally faced charges in the state system -- he could have been eligible for parole at some point.

His federal sentence, on the other hand, was life without the possibility of parole for the deaths of Gordon Lasley, Sr., 60, and Kim Renee Lasley, 57, in February 2014.

And while Lasley was acquitted of first-degree murder at trial, he was sentenced as if he were convicted of that charge. A non-Indian defendant would not have been treated the same, according to Judge Myron Bright of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.

"This disparity resting on Lasley’s status as an Indian is unjust, unfair, and improper," Bright wrote in a dissent on Friday.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: 8th Circuit Court of Appeals Oral Arguments in US v. Lasley December 18, 2015

Bright, however, was outvoted by two of his colleagues on the court. Although the majority acknowledged Lasley's long sentence was "admittedly harsh," it fell within sentencing guidelines, Judge James B. Loken wrote.

Loken pointed out that Lasley had already been convicted 26 times for various offenses by the time he was 26. He also abused the mother of his three children and one child was in the home at the time of the crime, according to the decision.

"The court explicitly considered mitigating factors -- Lasley’s mental health, substance abuse, employment, and family life -- as well as the need to avoid unwarranted sentencing disparity," Loken wrote.

Disparities in justice have long been a concern in Indian Country. The U.S. Sentencing Commission established the Tribal Issues Advisory Group, a panel of federal and tribal experts, in February 2015 to study the issue after decades of complaints.

The group's final report, which was made public in June, confirmed that Indian defendants were more likely to be sentenced above federal guidelines than non-Indians in the federal system.

"In addition, Native Americans were less likely to receive any type of below-range sentence," the report stated.

Based on sentencing data from 2003 through 2014, Indian defendants were more likely to be sentenced above federal guidelines than non-Indians in the federal system and were less likely to receive any type of below-range sentence. Chart from Report of the Tribal Issues Advisory Group

But the experts said a lack of information prevented them from determining whether Indian defendants face bias in the federal system. They also felt stymied by limited data at the state level.

"The TIAG learned that in Arizona, Montana, and New Mexico, there is a complete absence of centralized data, including demographic data, maintained by the state judicial and correctional systems," the report read. Native Americans represent significant percentages of the population in those three states.

Judge Bright, however, doesn't think the courts need to wait for more data or for Congress to change any laws. He said his colleagues can take action on their own to address the "unfair and prejudicial system" in Indian Country.

"Steps can, and should, be taken to reduce disparities in sentences under the Major Crimes Act and are supported by precedent," Bright wrote. "Namely, many disparities in sentences could be avoided if district courts were encouraged, if not required, to consider sentences imposed and time actually served for similar state-law crimes when sentencing Indian defendants under the Major Crimes Act."

At age 97, Bright is the longest-working judge on the 8th Circuit, whose territory includes Indian Country in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. He has repeatedly called for the release of Dana Deegan, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation of North Dakota who was convicted of second-degree murder for the death of her infant son.

Deegan, 43, was sentenced to 10 years for her crime but Bright said similarly situated non-Indian defendants in North Dakota have never been treated as harshly. She is due to be released in March 2017, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Lasley is serving two consecutive sentences in USP Terre Haute, which is described as a "high security" federal penitentiary in Indiana. He has no release date, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Turtle Talk has posted documents from his case, United States v. Lasley.

8th Circuit Court of Appeals Decision:
US v. Lasley (August 12, 2016)

U.S. Sentencing Commission Report:
Tribal Issues Advisory Group (June 2016)

Related Stories:
Mary Annette Pember: Indian mother suffered through trauma (08/13)
Sentencing Commission to consider Indian Country disparities (3/24)
FBI pursues murder charges against man from Meskwaki Tribe (03/11)
Man from Meskwaki Tribe charged for murdering his parents (02/07)
Meskwaki Tribe shocked by double murder of husband, wife (02/06)
Federal judge calls for release of Indian woman in North Dakota (10/16)