Montana Innocence Project client Joseph Jefferson-Dust appears in court today for a hearing regarding his Post-Conviction Relief Petition. Here are five things to know about Joe and his case:
1. Joe’s accuser fully recanted.
Joe was wrongfully convicted of Criminal Endangerment in 2017 following a false accusation. A nine-year-old girl (who we refer to as “K” to protect her identity) accused Joe of inappropriately touching her. K knew Joe because he was in a relationship with one of her family members at the time. Joe was charged with Sexual Assault of a Minor, which carries a possible 100-year prison sentence. As many innocent people facing lengthy prison sentences do, Joe took a plea deal. In exchange for pleading no contest to Criminal Endangerment, he was sentenced to 10 years, all suspended.
Three years later, K walked into the Billings Office of the Public Defender and recanted the entire accusation. She told an investigator that she made up the accusation at the direction of her father, who she knew did not like Native Americans. Joe is an enrolled member of the Crow Tribe with no criminal history aside from his wrongful conviction.
2. Joe’s experience reflects data about racial equity in Montana’s criminal legal system.
Although Joe aimed to follow every tedious probation rule, he was repeatedly cited for minor technical violations.
On one occasion, Joe sought approval from his probation officer to attend Crow Fair, an annual cultural celebration of the Apsáalooke people. It was particularly important for Joe to attend that year because he was being bestowed the right to smudge from his clan leader. His probation officer never responded, so he went. His probation officer later cited him for this.
On another occasion, Joe was living in a pre-release center. He was required to have a job but was not allowed to access his car. A friend was giving him rides to work, and when his friend stopped one morning to gas Joe purchased his gas and bought him McDonald’s to express his gratitude. Joe’s probation officer said this was “off agenda.”
These experiences made Joe hesitant to reach out to MTIP for help. He came to believe that maintaining his innocence would lead to retaliation. In fact, he most recently had his probation revoked based in part for refusing to admit guilt during a sex offender class he was required to complete.
A July 2022 study published by the Council of State Governments Justice Center found that American Indian people on probation are 1.44 times more likely to have supervision revoked than White people. Further, Indigenous Peoples are convicted at a 38% higher rate than the national average. In Montana specifically, Indigenous peoples comprise less than seven percent of the state population but 18 percent of the overall prison population.
3. Joe’s mom is his biggest advocate!
Upon learning about the Montana Innocence Project, Joe’s mom, Lydina Big Man, made it her mission to free her son. Post-Conviction Relief Petitions must be filed within one year of learning about new evidence of innocence, which was the recantation in this case. By the time Joe applied, the deadline was fast approaching.
Joe’s probation revocation was dismissed last August. When MTIP Legal Director Caiti Carpenter called Lydina to share the news, she dropped what she was doing, hopped on her Harley Davidson, and drove to the jail to pick him up.
“I thought it would be a great way to give Joe-Joe the ability to ride and feel freedom,” Lydina told MTIP that day.
4. Joe rediscovered his love for drawing and boxing while incarcerated.
When Joe was wrongfully incarcerated in jail and pre-release for probation revocations, he found a way to make the best of every situation. He made friendships and used the opportunity to practice boxing and drawing–two of his favorite hobbies.
Joe always looked up to his grandfather who was a boxer and enjoyed studying boxing styles. At pre-release, with the extra time and access to equipment, he started hitting the heavy bag at least three days a week and working on his boxing technique. In May, he won his first boxing tournament.
“It was kind of a way for me to regain some confidence,” Joe said. “I guess going through the whole ordeal with the system, I kind of felt like my dignity was taken away. So this was a way to reclaim some of that and rebuild the confidence I had lost because I had completely lost a lot of things mentally or at least second-guessed myself. This helps me regain some of that security in my own mind.”
While in jail, Joe used drawing to pass the time. Having studied art since high school, Joe was able to make detailed drawings for his friends with limited supplies and references. He routinely accepted commissions and would gift people drawings for nothing in return.
5. Joe’s innocence case progressed uncharacteristically fast.
If a wrongfully convicted person achieves freedom, on average, it takes six to seven years due to lengthy back-and-forth interactions with prosecutors and judges to access information and move Petitions for Post-Conviction Relief through the system. In Joe’s case, Yellowstone County Prosecutor Sarah Hyde acted swiftly upon recognizing the lack of evidence behind the conviction and moved the Court to vacate Joe’s conviction.
“I think this case should be a lesson in the incredible power we put in prosecutors’ hands, said MTIP Legal Director Caiti Carpenter. “And in this case, the prosecutor was able to fairly assess the facts and recognize that, as part of the system, we all have a duty to make sure wrongful convictions do not stand.”
At today’s hearing, both sides will address matters raised in the post-conviction briefings for the Court to consider. This case has unfolded differently than other MTIP cases, so we are not sure what to expect. But we will provide a recap of the hearing next week!
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