SHIPROCK — Federal investigators and prosecutors are following through on more Indian country cases, and those from the Navajo Nation in particular, a new report says.
While the FBI has a wide range of responsibilities nationwide, a significant part of its role in New Mexico is tending to investigations on tribal lands. In northwest New Mexico, the FBI spends almost all of its time on tribal investigations.
In that past, those investigations often stalled. A new report shows a recent shift toward more prosecutions, however.
A U.S. Department of Justice study released Thursday found that more tribal cases are being prosecuted in federal courts than in previous year. In other words, fewer cases are being closed before they reach the courts because of jurisdiction issues, insufficient evidence and a multitude of other reasons.
"They are taking on more cases," said Daryl Junes, a Navajo Nation Department of Justice senior prosecutor in Shiprock. "It all just boils down to coordinating and communicating."
The "2011-2012 Indian Country Investigations and Prosecutions" report stated that "a substantial majority of Indian country criminal cases opened by the FBI were referred for prosecution" and a substantial majority of those referred were prosecuted by the U.S. attorneys' offices.
Of all the cases initially opened in 2011 and 2012 by the FBI nationwide, about 70 percent were referred to the U.S. attorneys' offices in 2011, and 65 percent in 2012. Of those taken by the offices, about 63 percent were prosecuted in 2011, and 69 percent in 2012.
A bulk of the cases came from four divisions — those in Albuquerque, Phoenix, Minneapolis, and Salt Lake City. Because those divisions had the largest case loads, they accounted for about 75 percent of the cases closed in 2011 and 2012 before they reached the U.S. Attorneys' Offices or the federal courts.
They also accounted for the most cases referred to the U.S. Attorneys' Offices.
"We take (crimes on tribal lands) very seriously," said Stephan Marshall, chief division counsel for the FBI in New Mexico.
A majority of the crimes that the FBI responds to in-state are on the Navajo Nation, Marshall said.
"It's clearly the number one priority in Gallup and Farmington," Marshall said. "I don't think (the Navajo Nation) has a higher rate of crime, but just the size of it requires a lot of attention."
Marshall could not provide a percentage of FBI cases statewide that are from the Farmington-Gallup area, but he said it was significant.
Most of the time, the FBI responds to deaths, assaults, or sexual assaults on children because of a memorandum the FBI has with the Navajo Nation. The tribe investigates and prosecutes most other cases.
In years past, though, tribal officials have complained of the high number of cases that are closed by the FBI or denied by the U.S. Attorneys' Offices.
Many of the cases are then stuck in limbo, or turned back to the tribal courts, which are swamped by other, usually lesser, cases.
The reason — the FBI will either conclude that the crime should not be prosecuted in federal courts, the evidence was insufficient, or no crime was committed. Other times, the U.S. Attorneys' Offices will make the conclusion.
Still, 2011 and 2012 saw improvements.
In 2011, the New Mexico division closed 85 cases, and in 2012, it closed 63. The cases never went to the U.S. Attorneys' Offices.
In 2011, the division referred 185 cases, and in 2012, it referred 125 cases.
"I do receive copies of the letters," Junes said, explaining that the reasons cases are turned away are usually reasonable. "Sometimes the client just can't be reached, but we all do what we can to make sure justice is done."
Jenny Kane covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Jenny_Kane