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Patrick Springer, Published July 17 2012

US attorneys hold workshop to help Indian crime victims

FARGO – Dusty J. Morsette recruited minors and young adults to be part of a gang on the Fort Berthold Reservation that he called the Black Disciples – a group recently found to engage in human trafficking.

He was convicted in April of using force and coercion to recruit a young woman to become a prostitute performing sex acts on the reservation as well as in Williston and Minot. In all, a jury found he was responsible for five female victims of sex abuse, four of them younger than 16.

His convictions included human trafficking – a rarity in North Dakota, but one of a growing number of federal criminal prosecutions on reservations in both North Dakota and South Dakota, where federal prosecutors have brought three human trafficking cases in recent years.

U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon of North Dakota and U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson of South Dakota warned Tuesday that human trafficking is a growing concern in the two states.

Two years ago, Johnson’s office won a conviction in a trafficking case involving a man – now serving a life prison sentence – who had moved to the Sioux Falls area from Chicago and coerced young girls to become prostitutes.

“These young girls were brutalized,” Johnson said. “They were humiliated. They were treated as something less than human.”

The two federal prosecutors spoke at a conference here, “Offering Hope to Victims in the Spirit of Justice,” for law enforcement officers, victims’ advocates, social workers and court service officers who deal with family violence in American Indian communities.

In North Dakota, the number of prosecutions on reservations has increased 70 percent in the past two years, Purdon said Tuesday.

“I’m not saying crime is up on the reservations,” he added. “I don’t believe that.”

Instead, he said, it reflects his office’s added emphasis on prosecuting reservation crimes as diverse as family violence and public corruption. Now, assistant U.S. attorneys based in Fargo and Bismarck make regular visits to the reservations, where they meet with officials and speak to groups with a focus that includes community prevention as well as prosecution.

“You’re not going to arrest your way out of this problem,” Purdon said.

Johnson and Purdon have secured a grant to add a prosecutor at Standing Rock Reservation, which straddles the border of North Dakota and South Dakota, who will be able to take cases involving violence against women into both tribal and federal court.

The initiative, one of only four in the country, has been heralded as an innovative way to address jurisdictional conflicts that can arise between tribal and federal courts.

On a practical level, it will allow victims and witnesses to appear in court on the reservation instead of having to drive 2½ hours to Bismarck, Purdon said.

“It makes the women in tribal communities safer,” he said.

Sterling Reed, a police officer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs at Standing Rock, said the new prosecutor will enhance enforcement.

“It’s a great initiative,” he said. “I think it’s going to help out the prosecution of cases.”

If successful, the dual-court prosecutor could serve as a model for other reservations around the country, Reed said.

“We have many miles to go before we sleep in this effort,” Purdon said. “We’ve made some positive steps.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

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