Joseph Jefferson-Dust: Montana must end wrongful convictions and the disparate treatment of Indigenous people like me

My name is Joseph Jefferson-Dust, and I’m writing to share how a false accusation got me wrongfully convicted me of a felony. I was convicted in 2017 of criminal endangerment, which is the simple explanation. Originally, the State of Montana wanted to charge me with sexual assault. I could not, however, admit to this charge. I am innocent, and the state’s only evidence was an accusation. 

What came next was a plea deal, and it’s my belief that this is how the state convicts so many people, especially Native Americans. I remained steadfast in my denial to any wrongdoing. I’ve never been in trouble with the law before, and I’m a veteran. I figured that would be enough. But my public defender warned me of what would happen next if I didn’t accept the plea deal. My case would go to trial, and I would lose. I would receive a 40-year sentence and essentially spend the remainder of my life in prison.

If I took the deal, I would receive 10 years suspended. And so, I very reluctantly agreed. In my public defender’s view, this was the best possible outcome. I would not have to register as a sex offender, but my life was drastically altered for a crime I did not commit. I had to complete the offender treatment. I had to live with strict rules and regulations that would serve as arbitrary barriers preventing me from participating in cultural events, such as Crow Fair, pow-wows, and clan feeds. I also had to stay away from certain friends and family. Eventually, I learned to live with this new normal.

I’m not alone when it comes to wrongfully convicted Indigenous people. We 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. 

Although I received a suspended sentence, I spent about three years in jail, on an ankle monitor, or in a pre-release center because my parole was revoked for minor technical violations such as “going off agenda” when I stopped for gas on my way home from work. I am also not alone in this experience; in Montana, American Indian people on probation are 1.44 times more likely to have supervision revoked than White people. 

After nearly 5 years in the system, I finally found the courage to reach out to the Montana Innocence Project. After investigating my case, MTIP informed me that over a year ago my accuser had entirely recanted her accusation to the Office of the Public Defender. The truth had finally come out. I have since been released from jail, and my revocation has been dismissed. And while this process is still ongoing, I look forward to the future with a little more optimism. More hope.

I hope also that my story can bring to light the continuing struggle Indigenous people face when it comes to injustice. And that change can happen – change for the betterment of us all, regardless of our color or background.