Justice: Inaction’s fatal price

Published in The Denver Post, By Michael Riley, Article Last Updated: 11/13/2007.

Delays and missteps in Indian Country criminal cases can give offenders a free pass. The consequences can be tragic.

Zach Gervais and Arthur Schobey weren’t supposed to die.

Both young, both American Indians, the men were killed by assailants who should have been in federal custody for violent crimes they had committed on Indian reservations months earlier.

Gervais’ killer had stabbed two people on the Blackfeet reservation in what a police report described as an unprovoked attack, piercing one of the victims at least nine times. Though just about everyone in the windswept community of Browning, Mont., knew the assailant and where he lived, the FBI failed to make an arrest for seven months.

So he was in his living room when Gervais – a popular boy who had volunteered to help a female friend move out of the assailant’s house – tried to intervene in a scuffle and was stabbed just below the armpit, the blade slicing through a major artery near the heart. The death was bloody, without the mercy of being quick.

A thousand miles away, Arthur Schobey’s killer had stabbed two men in an isolated Navajo village after a scuffle in June 2004, grabbing one from behind and slicing his throat from the earlobe to the middle of his chin.
As a result, he was at an Albuquerque apartment complex four months later when there was an argument involving his brother, Schobey and Schobey’s brother. The assailant pulled out a knife and stabbed the pair from behind, according to Albuquerque police, killing one and seriously wounding the other …

… No charges, victim’s father told

As for Mick Villa, Zach Gervais’ killer, his time behind bars will be even more brief.

Because Villa is a juvenile, his court records are sealed and a spokesman for the U.S. attorney in Montana said she couldn’t comment on the case. But federal prosecutors told Gervais’ father that they have decided not to bring charges in the death of his son.

Witnesses say Zach and another boy stayed outside Villa’s house while Villa’s girlfriend and another girl went inside to get her clothes and other things. When a fight broke out, one of the girls called in the two boys, who tried to intervene.

But an adult witness inside the house said that at one point both boys were beating up Villa at the same time, providing what federal prosecutors believe was a viable claim of self-defense.

“The U.S. attorney felt that given the adult’s statement and the fact that they were in Mick’s house, he couldn’t win,” Joe Gervais, Zach’s father, said.

In the end, Villa pleaded guilty to stabbing Whitford, according to Villa’s attorney, and was sentenced to two years in juvenile detention, with an additional two years of the sentence suspended.

“To me, it’s a failure of the system more than the kid. Maybe if he’d gotten some kind of help. But the kid (Villa) shouldn’t have been out,” said Joe Gervais, his voice cracking.

For Washburn, the former prosecutor, these are also stories about something else – a morality tale about the violence that slips out of control and about the cost to law enforcement of ignoring lesser crimes:

“Rudy Giuliani in New York was credited with this ‘broken windows’ approach and really reducing crime in the 1990s in New York City. And the notion was we’re going to prosecute every tiny little crime because if we prosecute the little stuff, they won’t graduate to the big stuff,” Washburn said.

“That’s exactly the problem you have here. People did lesser crimes and they got away with it, and so they feel invincible enough to do bigger crime.

“If there is no ramifications to violence,” he said, “you might as well keep going.” (full long text).

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