GRAND FORKS (AP) - A federal appeals judge from North Dakota is supporting a campaign to free an American Indian woman who was convicted of second-degree murder in the death of her infant son and imprisoned for 10 years.
The case of Dana Deegan shows the need to reform how federal courts treat Native Americans, Judge Myron Bright, who sits on the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, told a forum at the University of North Dakota law school on Monday.
Deegan was 25 when she gave birth to the boy in 1998. She wrapped him in a blanket in a crib, then left her mobile home on the Fort Berthold Reservation with her three older children and didn't return for two weeks, authorities said. After she returned, they said, she put the boy's body in a suitcase and left it in a ditch.
Years later, authorities identified Deegan as the boy's mother through DNA testing, and federal prosecutors in 2007 charged her with first-degree murder. Facing decades in prison, Deegan pleaded guilty to the lesser charge and was sentenced to 10 years. She appealed her sentence in 2010, but the 8th Circuit Court rejected her appeal 2-1. Bright cast the dissenting vote.
Deegan has about four years left to serve in a federal prison for women in Waseca, Minn.
Bright said Indians convicted of serious crimes on reservations often face harsher sentences than non-Indians convicted of the same crimes, the Grand Forks Herald reported (http://bit.ly/H1dLbY ).
In 1998, a North Dakota State University student was convicted in state court in Fargo in a comparable death of her infant and was sentenced to probation, Bright said. In 2009, a Bismarck woman was sentenced in her baby's death to two years behind bars, he said.
The judge said he has written to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the U.S. Sentencing Commission about what he calls glaring disparities in justice for Indians, but that they have done nothing.
Bright urged people at the forum on sentencing disparities for American Indians to get involved in the effort to free Deegan.
"This is an injustice under the law," he said. "So now is the time for all of us in the system to take a hard look at it and right a wrong and try to get justice for Dana Deegan."
Marmie Jotter, Deegan's sister, said Deegan never intended to cause her son's death, but was overwhelmed by a lifetime of abuse and poverty she no longer could handle. She asked participants at the forum to write to President Barack Obama asking him to commute Deegan's sentence.