9th Circuit Tosses Shooting Convictions
(CN) - Prosecutors failed to prove that an Arizona man who allegedly helped shoot up a home on an Indian reservation had the proper bloodline to meet federal jurisdiction, the 9th Circuit ruled Thursday.
The San Francisco-based appeals court reversed jury convictions against Damien Zepeda for assault with a deadly weapon, use of a firearm during a crime of violence and other charges.
Prosecutors said that Zepeda and his brothers shot up the home of Dallas Peters in 2008, seriously injuring Peters in the process. The incident occurred on the Ak-Chin Reservation near Phoenix.
The indictment against Zepeda said he was an Indian, giving the federal government jurisdiction over the crime under the Major Crimes Act. To prove this at trial, prosecutors submitted a certificate certifying that Zepeda was an enrolled member in Gila River Indian Community, a federally recognized tribe. It further confirmed that Zepeda had a "'Blood Degree' of '1/4 Pima [and] 1/4 Tohono O'Odham' for a total of 1/2'." The Tohono O'odham nation has a reservation in southern Arizona near Tucson.
A jury convicted him on all charges. Zepeda argued on appeal that the certificate of enrollment was not enough to meet federal jurisdiction, and a divided 9th Circuit agreed on Thursday.
"We are not free to speculate that Zepeda's Tohono O'odham blood is derived from the Tohono O'odham Nation of Arizona," wrote Judge Richard Paez for the three-judge panel.
"The Tribal Enrollment Certificate was insufficient to establish that Zepeda is an Indian for the purposes of federal jurisdiction under § 1153 because the government introduced no evidence that Zepeda's bloodline is derived from a federally recognized tribe," he added.
The ruling does not let Zepeda off the hook completely; the panel upheld his conspiracy conviction because the statute on which it was based "applies equally to everyone everywhere within the United States, including Indians in Indian country."
In a brief dissent Judge Paul Watford suggested that the majority had set the bar too high, writing that "a rational jury could certainly infer that the reference in Zepeda's tribal enrollment certificate to '1/4 Tohono O'Odham' is a reference to the federally recognized Tohono O'odham Nation of Arizona."