On the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana. Photo: Vision Service Adventures

Court upholds conviction in Northern Cheyenne domestic violence case

A citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe who was convicted of assaulting his common-law wife has lost an attempt to silence his victim.

By a unanimous vote, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday said Leon Seminole was lawfully convicted of strangling and assaulting his wife. A three-judge panel rejected his attempt to have her testimony removed from the record, noting that victims are often reluctant to share their stories.

"We are far from solving the crisis of domestic violence, as '[t]his country witnesses more than a million acts of domestic violence, and hundreds of deaths from domestic violence, each year,'" Judge John B. Owens wrote in the 10-page decision, quoting from a landmark domestic violence case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"It is a crime that is 'notoriously susceptible to intimidation or coercion of the victim to ensure that she does not testify at trial,'" Owens added, quoting from another domestic violence case.

In Seminole's situation, his victim didn't want to testify about an August 2014 incident that left her bloodied and beaten. She had to be forced to take the stand, where she suddenly offered a different account, claiming she was the "instigator," even though he was the one who brandished a gun, the court's decision stated.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Oral Arguments in U.S. v. Seminole

The testimony contradicted prior statements she had given to the Bureau of Indian Affairs after the attack. Based on the evidence, which included accounts from other witnesses, Seminole was convicted of one count of assault of a spouse by attempting to strangle and suffocate and one count of assault resulting in substantial bodily injury to a spouse.

"Witnesses testified that the victim’s face was red and swollen and she looked like she had been beaten up. Medical evidence presented at trial documented that the victim had suffered multiple contusions to her head and face," the U.S. Attorney's Office in Montana said after the April 2016 trial. "Both eyes were swollen and one was swollen shut. The victim had a broken tooth, which she said had been broken as she struggled with Seminole."

As part of his appeal to the 10th Circuit, Seminole argued that spousal privilege protected his wife's refusal to testify. But the court said the privilege does not apply in cases where the "spouse is the victim of the defendant’s crime."

Seminole was sentenced to 48 months in prison for his crimes. He is due to be released in September 2019, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

9th Circuit Court of Appeals Decision:
U.S. v. Seminole (July 31, 2017)

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