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.
Montana Innocence Project client Joseph Jefferson-Dust was released from Yellowstone County Jail on August 30 following being exonerated of parole revocation.
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 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 repeatedly cited for 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. His parole 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 parole 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 parole 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 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.
On August 30, 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 has 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.”
Joe was exonerated of parole revocation, but we are still awaiting the judge’s final disposition of the underlying criminal matter. Since his release, he has been spending time with his family at home and catching up on much-needed rest.
“I’m kind of a big dude, so the beds they have in jail don’t really fit me,” Joe said. “Just been resting. Getting some work lined up.”
Joe and his family plan to have a celebratory meal when his case is finalized.
“Any meal outside of jail is a good meal, but the really good one…we’ll definitely do something,” Joe said.
Joe has been wrongfully supervised on parole for almost six years and wrongfully incarcerated on and off during that time for a total of 38 months. Montana taxpayers paid roughly $91,200 to wrongfully incarcerate Joe based solely on an accusation and no other evidence—an accusation that is entirely recanted.
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.
Joe’s exoneration 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.”
MTIP continues to fight for Joe’s full exoneration. We will provide updates as soon as they are available!
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