Federal Judge Myron Bright told a UND audience Monday that he's supporting a campaign to get a North Dakota American Indian woman released from federal prison.
Bright, who sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, said his approach since he was appointed in 1968 has been to seek first justice "and try to do it under the law."
Which is why, he said, he was gripped by the case of Dana Deegan from the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. She was sentenced to 10 years for a crime that he said often results in a much lesser sentence off the reservation.
Deegan is a worst case scenario of the need to reform how federal courts treat American Indians, Bright said
The 94-year-old judge was a speaker at a UND law-school forum on sentencing disparities for Indians.
He said that because of historical jurisdiction taken by federal courts in Indian Country in the 19th century and more recent special laws, Indians convicted of serious crimes on reservations face harsh federal sentences.
For the same crimes, he said, non-Indians "across the road" would get much more lenient state sentences.
Deegan was convicted in 2007 in federal court in North Dakota of second-degree murder of her infant son in 1998 in the Fort Berthold reservation.
She was 25 when she gave birth to the boy, wrapped him in a blanket in a crib, then left her trailer home with her three older children and didn't return for two weeks.
Years later, federal prosecutors charged her with first-degree murder. Facing possibly decades in prison, Deegan pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was sentenced to 10 years. She's in a federal prison for women in Waseca, Minn., with about four years left to serve.
In often strong tones showing anger, Bright described how unjust Deegan's sentence seems to him.
In 1998, a North Dakota State University student was convicted in state court in Fargo in a comparable death of her infant and was sentenced to probation, Bright said. In 2009, a Bismarck woman was sentenced in her baby's death to two years behind bars, he said.
When Deegan appealed her sentence to the 8th Circuit in 2010, the court rejected her appeal 2-1. Bright's was the dissenting vote.
In his dissent, he wrote that the history of violence against Indian women only added to the phenomenon doctors call "neonaticide," of mothers under post-partum mental strain causing their babies' deaths shortly after birth.
"The violence against women and children on Indian reservations is a national scandal," he wrote, saying it must be solved by fixing a broken system.
Several of the 13 Indians among the law school's student population of 250 attended Monday's forum.
"There is a huge disparity" in how Indians in Indian Country face federal sentences for crimes that are sentenced in state courts for non-Indians, said Jeanne Williams, a second-year law student. "I wasn't familiar with the Dana Deegan case but her sentence seems unfair."
The frequency of violence Indian women experience create "a cycle" that seems to lead to more crime, she said.
A member of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, Williams has worked as a tribal court official on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation near Devils Lake.
Call to action
Bright said he has written U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the U.S. Sentencing Commission about what he calls glaring disparities in justice for Indians.
"And what did they do?" he said in the near-shouting tone of the law professor he once was. "Nothing!"
Pointing out Deegan's daughters, Kamryn, 17, and Sydney, 16, who accompanied their aunt and guardian to the forum, Bright urged the 40 people at the UND forum to get involved in the effort to free her.
"So this is an injustice under the law," he said. "So now is the time for all of us in the system to take a hard look at it and right a wrong and try to get justice for Dana Deegan."
Marmie Jotter, Deegan's sister, said Deegan never intended to cause her son's death, but was overwhelmed by a lifetime of abuse and poverty she no longer could handle.
She and Deegan's daughters passed out form letters for people to send to President Barack Obama asking him to commute Deegan's sentence, which will be completed in 2017.