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.
Joseph Jefferson-Dust was a Navy veteran hoping to pursue a career as an artist when a false accusation upended his life.
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 the 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 10 years, 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 probation rule but 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 said this was a violation.
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 Joe stopped one morning to fill his friend’s gas tank and buy him McDonald’s to express his gratitude. Joe’s probation officer said this was going “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 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.
MTIP takes the case:
Joe eventually learned about K’s recantation, but not through his attorney. While he was still out on probation, 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.
On August 30, 2022, Joe walked out of jail. Lydina picked him up on her Harley Davidson.
“I thought it would be a great way to give Joe-Joe the ability to ride and feel freedom,” Lydina said.
Lydina is a fierce advocate for Joe and Indigenous Justice overall. Even before Joe’s case, she witnessed Native people experience wrongful and unjust convictions.
“I see a lot of my fellow tribal folks go through a lot; my heart breaks,” Lydina said. “And then, when my son had to face the same issue, I thought, ‘This needs to be awakened.’ It was personal. I see a lot of fellow tribes…their family members are going through the same things because they cannot afford an attorney. They [the State] get them where they want them, and I feel that’s not fair. They’re not really doing the job they’re supposed to.”
Despite experiencing the nightmare of wrongful conviction, Joe said being in jail “wasn’t all bad.” This sentiment corresponds with the type of person Joe is: kind, easy-going, and positive.
“I was definitely sad [in jail], but it wasn’t all bad,” Joe said. “I became really good at chess. Even though they were criminals, or whatever, I met some decent people. Like the guy who helped me get good at chess. He would just grill me every day on wanting to play chess.”
Joe is a talented artist and would use much of his time spent wrongfully incarcerated drawing detailed images entirely from memory.
Where his case stands today:
Joe’s case progressed uncharacteristically fast. If a 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. 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’s probation revocation was dismissed, and he was released from jail in August 2022. MTIP spent the next year fighting for the dismissal of the underlying criminal matter. In July 2023, Joe appeared before Judge Brett Linneweber for a hearing regarding his Post-Conviction Relief Petition. We are thrilled to announce that Judge Linneweber relieved Joe of all duties to probation and parole and indicated that he will vacate the conviction in response to the post-hearing briefings he ordered from both sides.
Judge Linneweber spent a portion of the hearing eliciting context from MTIP Legal Director Caiti Carpenter about the evidence that he openly discussed was to help him decide whether to vacate the conviction and dismiss the charges or vacate the conviction and order a new trial. Proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law were ordered for August 18, 2023. We hope to have an official order soon after!
More on Joseph Jefferson-Dust: