Since 1989, more than 3,000 people have been exonerated in the United States after having a wrongful conviction overturned. Collectively, these individuals spent more than 27,200 years wrongfully imprisoned, and their families and communities spent that time missing an integral piece of the fabric of their lives as well.
Today is the Ninth Annual International Wrongful Conviction Day—a day to raise awareness about the causes and remedies of wrongful conviction and to recognize the tremendous personal, social, and emotional costs of wrongful conviction for directly impacted people and their families.
The Montana Innocence Project observed Wrongful Conviction Day last Friday with three events in recognition of this year’s theme: Collective Impact.
Supporters gathered at the Missoula County Courthouse for an Indigenous Justice Rally. Senator Shane Morigeau opened the event by discussing how suppression policies have ongoing impacts on Indigenous communities. He shared that 23% of people incarcerated in Montana prisons are Indigenous despite making up less than 7% of the state’s population. He described how ongoing efforts to unjustly incarcerate Indigenous Peoples have a “crippling effect” on communities.
MTIP Executive Director Amy Sings In The Timber spoke next and described the wrongful conviction case of MTIP client Joseph Jefferson-Dust. Joe was wrongfully convicted six years ago after a young girl falsely accused him of inappropriately touching her. There was no evidence to corroborate the allegation. Amy discussed how the plea deal offered to Joe speaks volumes to the weakness of the State’s case; the original charge of sexual assault on a minor carried a 100-year sentence but they pleaded down to criminal endangerment and 10 years of probation, all suspended. Amy discussed how this plea agreement would have never been made had the State truly believed Joe was guilty.
Joe’s probation was revoked numerous times for minor technical violations. Amy discussed the revocations in the context of a recent study from the Council of State Governments Justice Center that found American Indian people on probation are 1.44 times more likely to have supervision revoked than White people in Montana.
The accuser in Joe’s case has entirely recanted on multiple occasions. Joe was released from jail on August 30 following his probation revocation being dismissed, and we are awaiting a final order about his underlying conviction.
Joe, his mom Lydina Big Man, and his grandmother Edwina Beaumont spoke next. Joe courageously talked about his wrongful conviction experience. Although he had pages of notes prepared, when the moment came, he spoke entirely from the heart. Joe discussed how he had never encountered the criminal legal system prior to being falsely accused and did not know how to navigate it, leading to him accepting the plea deal at the direction of his court appointed attorney. He also talked about the immense frustration with his technical probation violations. In particular, he focused on the time he was revoked for attending Crow Fair, an annual cultural celebration of the Apsáalooke people. Although he went through the proper channels to request permission, his Probation Officer never responded to him. Joe felt as if he had no choice but to go as he was receiving the right to smudge from his clan leader. The audience was visibly gripped as he shared the cultural significance of this right of passage and the unimaginable position he was put in of risking jail to attend—all because he was convicted of a crime that did not occur.
Lydina and Edwina provided context for Joe’s upbringing and his character. They both shared how is the oldest son and always one to do the right thing. They refer to him as their “gentle giant.” Lydina and Edwina’s speeches shared funny stories about Joe growing up mixed with discussion about how the criminal legal system refuses to understand Indigenous cultures and instead removes innocent people from their communities with no consideration of the impacts.
These messages felt especially important as Friday, September 30th was also National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, which recognizes the painful legacy and lasting impact that Indian Boarding Schools and national policies of forced assimilation have on tribal peoples and their communities.
Following the rally, supporters gathered at Imagine Nation Brewing for Criminal Justice Trivia. Rounds included questions about wrongful conviction statistics, criminal legal reform, and Indigenous Justice in Montana.
We ended the evening with a circle discussion of MTIP’s current cases. MTIP Legal Director Caiti Carpenter provided an overview of each case as attendees looked at framed client portraits photographed this summer by our journalism intern Sarah Mosquera. As one attendee said, the images showed the humanity behind each story. Joe and his family attended and answered questions about life since Joe’s release three weeks ago, the impact of the last six years on their lives, and their cautious optimism going forward as they await the final order in Joe’s case.
A huge thank you to those who attended on Friday to recognize Wrongful Conviction Day and have important discussions about the collective impact of injustice in Indigenous communities. And an even bigger thank you to Joe and his family for sharing about an unjust experience that is still impacting their lives daily. An attendee in the circle discussion praised Joe and his family for being so open in the face of incredibly difficult circumstances; we echo that sentiment.