Note: The Montana Innocence Project recognizes the complex intersection of believing victims of sexual violence while also understanding the role of false accusations in wrongful convictions. In the case described below, we have opted to omit certain details to protect the identity of a minor. Through our investigation, we learned of traumas suffered by the minor who initially falsely accused Mr. Jefferson-Dust of a crime. These traumas however were not perpetrated by Mr. Jefferson-Dust.
The Montana Innocence Project’s newest client Joseph Jefferson-Dust was released from Yellowstone County Jail on August 30.
In 2015, a nine-year-old girl (who we will refer to as “K” to protect her identity) accused Joe, who was in a relationship with one of K’s family members at the time, of inappropriately touching her. No evidence corroborated the accusation. The Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office charged Joe with sexual assault of a minor. Fearful of losing at trial and facing 100 years in prison, Joe pleaded no contest to Criminal Endangerment, and was sentenced to ten years of probation all suspended on March 28, 2017.
In 2020, K voluntarily recanted the accusation entirely. She told an investigator with the Billings Office of the Public Defender that she made up the accusation at the direction of her father who told her that he does not like Native American men and expressed to her that Native men are dangerous. Joe has no criminal history.
“Montana disproportionately incarcerates Indigenous peoples,” said MTIP Executive Director Amy Sings In The Timber. “Over-criminalizing based on racist stereotypes contributes to this phenomenon, and systemic racism contributes to wrongful and unjust convictions. The Montana Innocence Project is committed to addressing these issues in the courts, the legislature, and in our communities.”
After taking K’s recantation, the investigator said he would alert the prosecutor and Joe’s defense attorney. He brought it to the attention of the Regional Manager of the Billings Office of the Public Defender and Joseph’s trial counsel. Nothing came of it for over a year.
Joe aimed to follow every tedious parole rule but was revoked on minor technical violations. On one occasion, Joe sought approval from his parole 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 parole officer never responded, so he went. Joe’s parole was revoked as a result.
On another occasion, Joe was living in a pre-release center. He was required to have a job but not allowed to access his car. A friend was giving him rides to work, and Joe stopped one morning to fill his friend’s gas tank and buy him McDonald’s to express his gratitude. Joe’s parole was revoked because making those stops was considered going “off agenda.”
These revocations 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 was most recently revoked for refusing to admit guilt during a sex offender class he was required to complete.
MTIP takes the case:
Joe eventually learned about K’s recantation, but not through his attorney. While he was still out on parole, he happened to run into an acquaintance that he shared with K’s mom at the DMV. She told him about the recantation. With this knowledge, Joe and his mom Lydina Big Man requested legal assistance from MTIP and worked closely with our legal team to free Joe as soon as possible.
Yesterday, Joe walked out of jail. Lydina picked him up on her Harley Davidson.
Joe’s release happened uncharacteristically fast. On average, it takes six to seven years to free an innocent person due to lengthy back-and-forth interactions with prosecutors and judges to access information and move Petitions for Post-Conviction Relief through the system. We commend Yellowstone County Prosecutor Sarah Hyde for her swift action upon recognizing the lack of evidence behind the 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.”
Joe was wrongfully supervised on parole for almost six years and wrongfully incarcerated on and off during that time. Collectively, our clients have spent over 175 years in jail and prison for crimes they did not commit—costing Montana taxpayers millions.
We will continue to follow Joe’s story! Sign up for our email list here or follow us on social media @BigSkyInnocence for the most recent updates.