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9th Circuit Decides Indian Reservation Murder Case

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on March 11, 2016 12:53 PM

It's rare when issues of jurisdiction actually sound interesting, but a recent case in California makes the grade. The Ninth Circuit affirmed in part a criminal judgment against a defendant in a murder case where jurisdiction over the defendant turned on whether or not the victim was Indian.

This case reminds of the duality in the Continental United States between the US Government and the Indian Nations.

A "Mexican Visitor"

The case of U.S. v. Reza-Ramos involved the apparent multiple felony murder of Jose Flores on an Indian Reservation in Southern Arizona. The victim, who was a resident on the reservation, took on a "Mexican visitor." A second ranch hand arrived one morning and saw blood and drag marks leading up a hill where he discovered the victim's body covered in blood. There were rocks on this chest and on his face. An iron bar was also removed from Flores' chest. Back at the reservation's residence, the defendant's fingerprints were found on the victim's bloodied car. Defendant Reza-Ramos was indicted on multiple homicide theories and convicted of two.

General Crimes Act

The law that applied against the Defendant was the Indian General Crimes Act. The federal law generally recognizes the sovereignty of both the United States and the various Indian Nations. However, under the Act, federal criminal laws apply in federal enclaves when the defendant is a non-Indian and the victim is an Indian. At trial, the jury was instructed that it should conclude and treat it as settled that Flores was an Indian, thought not under the guidelines as spelled out in a previous case U.S. v Bruce.

He's an Indian

The Ninth Circuit had to decide upon whom the burden rested to prove Flores' ancestry as this fact was dispositive for the application of federal law. In looking at past case law, the court noted that SCOTUS had exclusive federal jurisdiction in cases that weren't subject to the Indian General Crimes Act. Thus, if Flores was an Indian, then federal jurisdiction would not apply. The government had to prove that it had the right to hale Reza-Ramos into federal court.

In the end, the circuit felt that the totality of the facts allowed a reasonable jury to conclude that the victim was an Indian because of evidence that Flores had ties to the reservation and that the body was, in fact, his. Yes, the court said, the lower court should have applied U.S. v. Bruce. But under the plain error standard, no harm was done.

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