Lack of jurors delays council delegate's trial

Noel Lyn Smith
The candidacy filing period for a seat on the Navajo Nation Council formerly held by Delegate Mel R. Begay is now open.

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — Due to the lack of jurors, the start of Navajo Nation Council Delegate Mel R. Begay's trial on misuse of tribal emergency funds was delayed Monday in Window Rock District Court.

Begay has been charged with one count of conspiracy to commit fraud and nine counts of making or permitting false tribal vouchers that were allegedly used to take more than $30,000 from the council's discretionary fund to benefit his relatives.

The discretionary fund was designed to help tribal members who faced financial hardships or needed emergency assistance. The court has scheduled a jury trial and a bench trial to address the 10 charges.

Begay sat to the left side of his attorney, Jeffery Rasmussen, in court Monday.

During the proceedings, District Court Judge Carol Perry explained that more than 200 people were contacted for jury duty.

“A large number did not report in this morning,” Perry said.

Judicial branch spokeswoman Karen Francis said in an email 83 prospective jurors were summoned to appear Monday.

Of those who responded, most were excused for reasons such as medical issues and at least one individual stated they personally knew Begay, Perry explained while court was in session.

With only 13 individuals in attendance on Monday, there were not enough jurors to continue, Perry said.

Perry further explained that a jury consists of six individuals along with six alternatives. Attorneys can dismiss or excuse up to three potential jurors during the selection process without having to provide a reason.

Perry ordered the jurors to return Tuesday morning and said court staff will attempt to contact potential jurors and remind them to report to court on Tuesday.

Court staff randomly selected potential jurors from registered voters at chapters within a 60 mile radius of the district court and sent jury questionnaire forms, Francis wrote.

Jury trials in tribal courts are not frequent in the 11 judicial districts.

There was one jury trial in 2013 and six jury trials in 2014, Francis stated adding there were no jury trials in Window Rock in 2015. Those numbers do not include district courts that are not in the Judicial Branch's case management system yet, she wrote.

Also on Monday morning, Rasmussen, Begay's attorney, filed an emergency motion requesting that the Navajo Nation Supreme Court suspend the district court proceedings on the case due to pending high court motions.

This latest motion was filed after Perry denied a March 7 motion to recuse herself from presiding over the case. Rasmussen filed that motion the same day Begay appeared before Perry in a pre-trial conference in Window Rock.

The March 7 motion stated that under tribal law, the Supreme Court is above a district court and when a matter is pending before the high court, the lower court cannot take any actions on issues under appeal.

The Supreme Court has not weighed in on the latest motion.

Begay, who represents Bahastl’ah, Coyote Canyon, Mexican Springs, Naschitti and Tohatchi chapters, is the only current member of the council facing charges related to the alleged misuse of tribal discretionary funds.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.