Prosecution gets tribal expertise

2009-12-10T23:30:00Z Prosecution gets tribal expertiseCLAIR JOHNSON Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
December 10, 2009 11:30 pm  • 

Two attorneys with Indian Country experience joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office on Thursday.

Chief U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull administered an oath to practice in federal court to Dawn Bitz-Running Wolf, an assistant U.S. attorney in the Great Falls office, and to Diane Cabrera, the Crow Tribe’s prosecutor.

U.S. Attorney Bill Mercer said the addition of Bitz-Running Wolf and Cabrera will expand prosecutions from the state’s Indian reservations and strengthen and improve communications between federal prosecutors and tribal and state agencies.

“Both of them have an awful lot of practical experience they bring on Day One to help us do this work,” Mercer said.

Bitz-Running Wolf fills a formerly vacant position in the Great Falls office and brings to 23 the number of assistant federal prosecutors in the state.

Bitz-Running Wolf said she is meeting with Crow and Northern Cheyenne officials this week.

Cabrera’s position as a special assistant prosecutor is new. Mercer said he believes Cabrera is the first tribal prosecutor nationally to become a special assistant. “It’s a great day in Indian Country,” Cabrera said. The Department of Justice, she said, is going in the right direction on tribal issues and Montana is in the forefront.

Bitz-Running Wolf will assume tribal liaison responsibilities statewide for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The goal of the program is to maintain communication with key officials to make sure crimes under the Major Crimes Act are investigated and charged, Mercer said. Bitz-Running Wolf will assume the liaison duties previously performed by other prosecutors.

Bitz-Running Wolf also will prosecute lower-priority major crimes, like burglaries, and misdemeanors, like domestic abuse, which can fall outside tribal and state jurisdictions.

In crimes where the offender is non-Indian and the victim is Indian, only the feds have jurisdiction, Mercer said. The tribe has no jurisdiction over non-Indians, and the state has no jurisdiction on reservations. Federal court is the only place where those kinds of crimes can be prosecuted, Mercer said.

“We’ve been told over time this is a significant problem,’’ he said.

Bitz-Running Wolf, who grew up in Browning, is a graduate of Arizona State University College of Law. She has an associate’s degree from the Blackfeet Community College and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Great Falls. She served as a drug court coordinator for the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming and in 2007 became a tribal prosecutor for the Washoe Tribe in Nevada.

Cabrera has been the Crow Tribe’s prosecutor since 2007. She has a law degree from the University of New Mexico School of Law with a certificate in Indian law. She has a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Hawaii and taught kindergarten in Hawaii. Before working for the Crow Tribe, Cabrera was an assistant public defender and then assistant attorney general for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Cabrera will have the authority to seek grand jury charges for federal cases. She will be handling cases from the Crow Reservation, Mercer said.

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