Judge Bright calls federal sentences of Native Americans unfair in Iowa case

By: Rox Laird on August 15th, 2016

A sentence of life in prison for a resident of the Meskwaki Settlement in Iowa illustrates how Native Americans are treated more harshly under federal law than state or tribal law, a federal appeals-court judge said in a dissenting opinion last week.

 “I write to protest the sentencing disparity in this case and the heavy disparity in sentences for other similarly-situated individuals based purely on their race and residence,” Judge Myron Bright of Fargo, N.D., said in dissenting from a ruling by a three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

The majority upheld the conviction of Gordon Lasley Jr. for the brutal murder of his parents with a machete at their home on the Meskwaki Settlement. The appeals court also upheld the two consecutive life sentences handed down by U.S. District Judge Linda Reade, chief judge of the Northern District of Iowa.

Bright, however, argued that this case is just the latest example of sentencing disparities that come from prosecuting Native Americans under federal law.

Had he been convicted of second-degree murder under Iowa law, Bright wrote, Lasley would have faced a maximum prison sentence of 50 years with a chance at parole after 35 years. (While acknowledging that Lasley received two consecutive federal sentences, Bright wrote that state officials were unable to document any examples of an individual being convicted of two counts of second-degree murder and serving consecutive sentences in Iowa.)

Bright also objected that Reade applied federal sentencing guidelines to Lasley for first-degree murder, not second-degree murder as found by the jury. “Here, a jury expressly found Lasley not guilty of first-degree murder — namely, Lasley did not commit murder willfully, deliberately, maliciously, or with premeditation and malice aforethought,” Bright wrote.

Although the Eighth Circuit has upheld that sentencing practice in previous cases, Bright said the resulting enhancements of sentences violate the Fifth and Sixth Amendments to the Constitution, and those decisions should be overturned.

Bright, who has served on the Eighth Circuit since 1968, has frequently raised concerns about sentencing disparity in what are known as “Indian Country” cases.

“The time has come for federal courts to take action to avoid unwarranted sentencing disparities for individuals like Lasley,” he wrote last week.  “Federal courts must take into account sentences and actual time served for similar state-law crimes . . . to ensure Indians in Indian Country do not receive drastically increased penalties for crimes traditionally handled in state or tribal court.”

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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
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