Natives rally at court for equal justice

Officials dispute claims of unfair treatment in fatality

Posted: Sunday, June 04, 2000

At a Friday rally on the Court Plaza steps, Alaska Natives protested for ``Equal Rights, Equal Justice.''

Speakers included Bob Loescher of Sealaska; Ed Thomas of the Tlingit-Haida Central Council; Julie Kitka of the Alaska Federation of Natives; and Sam Jackson of the Alaska Native Brotherhood Grand Camp.

``We are focusing on the inequities of treatment for Natives in the state judicial system, and I believe with quite a few police departments around Alaska, including the Juneau Police Department,'' said rally organizer Gerry Hope, councilman of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska.

Assistant Police Chief Greg Browning, in an interview Friday, denied the accusation.

``We don't tolerate prejudice in the Juneau Police Department,'' Browning said. ``We are committed to having a culturally diverse staff and we provide training in cultural diversity. Before we even hire anyone, we try to weed out people with a high degree of discriminatory attitude.''

As an example of racially biased treatment, Hope cited a resolution adopted April 15 at the 65th General Assembly of the Tlingit-Haida Central Council about the death of his father Andrew P. ``John'' Hope Jr. in October in a ``tragic traffic accident.'' The resolution states the ANB ``lost a fearless advocate for Native rights long before his time'' and ``the justice system was flawed in their plea bargaining in producing a light six-month sentence'' for defendant Trevor Church.

``I forgive Trevor Church (the driver of a truck that struck Andrew Hope's car), but the plea bargain was agreed to without talking to the widow (Hazel Hope),'' Gerry Hope said. Hope believes Church received preferential treatment because he is white.

``I personally didn't realize how unequal the justice system treats Native until I was involved in this case,'' said Hope. If Church has been Native, he ``would have been jumped on right away and given all kinds of tests. But they just let him go home.''

The proposed sentence of six to 12 months for Church ``appears to be within the range that everybody charged with criminally negligent homicide in the last 20 years has received in Juneau,'' District Attorney Rick Svobodny said Saturday.

``There was no alcohol involved, no drugs involved. Mr. Church was inattentive to a red light. He was immediately on the scene remorseful,'' he noted.

``The DA's office discussed this with Mrs. Hope beforehand and it was OK for her if we didn't go to trial,'' Svobodny added.

Gerry Hope said he is ``really strongly disappointed in the lack of quality representation that Hazel Hope is receiving. It seems that her attorney (Leslie Longenbaugh) is letting (Church's) public defender just beat her up all over the place, and there is no justice. It's a strongly frustrating experience,'' Hope said. ``It seems the Alaska Native is not cared about.''

He cited statistics compiled by the Alaska Native Justice Center in Anchorage. According to the latest statewide figures available (1997), Alaska Natives represent just over 16 percent of the state's population, yet they make up more than 35 percent of Alaska's prison population. Natives account for 34 percent of arrests for aggravated assault; 42 percent of arrests for forcible rape; 23 percent of arrests for motor vehicle theft; and 21 percent of all arrests among persons under 18.

Hope described Friday's rally as ``a jumping-off point to focus attention in working with the Alaska Native Justice Center and the Native American Rights Fund in their efforts to address the inequities in the state court system.''

Church has not yet been sentenced, Svobodny pointed out. ``If the court feels that the sentence agreement is inappropriate, then the court would and should reject it,'' he said.

Hope is incorrect in assuming Church did not undergo testing, Browning said.

``Church did submit to a blood-alcohol test 2 hours and 40 minutes after the accident. The results were zero,'' Browning said. ``We did not do testing at the scene because the accident was first thought not to be a fatality.''

Attorney Leslie Longenbaugh was on vacation and could not be reached for comment.

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