Racial Profiling, North Dakota-Style


SISSETON – Adelia Godfrey spends her days alone in a dimly lit basement cell. She is wondering whether to kill herself. Godfrey, 17, was first arrested for misdemeanor charges nearly a month ago, but a fight with officers at the Roberts County Jail led to two felony charges. Now the Roberts County state’s attorney wants to prosecute her as an adult. If convicted, she could be sentenced to 30 years in prison. “At night, I get panic attacks, and I worry I’ll stop breathing,” Godfrey said Thursday before a court hearing in the case.” I get real scared and depressed. I pray that I can go to sleep. There’s no one for me to talk to. I think I’m losing my mind.”

Members of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe, of which Godfrey is an enrolled member, say her case is an example of a dual system of justice in Roberts County. The county is 68 percent white and 30 percent Native American. Tribal members, who protested her incarceration last week, contend Native American youth are targeted by police and want Godfrey moved to a tribal facility instead of the adult jail.

Law enforcement officials say the girl is being held in the basement cell in the Grant County Jail — called “the dungeon” by the sheriff who oversees it — because there is no juvenile facility in the area that can take her. The Roberts County state’s attorney and the Sisseton chief of police say Native Americans are treated no differently than whites. They say Godfrey “went ape” in the jail, sprayed an officer with a fire extinguisher, spit and tried to bite another officer. The charges fit the crime, authorities say.

Godfrey was one of several girls who cut themselves with broken light bulbs while housed in a state juvenile prison in Plankinton. Her thin arms are still covered with scars, some as thick as cigars. The girl’s family worries she may attempt suicide. “She asked me … if we have two lives,” said Godfrey’s mother, Shirley Duggan, through tears. “I told her, ‘No, honey, we only have just one. … Please take care of it.’ ”

Tribal members say Godfrey’s case may be the most egregious example of a legal system that preys upon tribal members, especially youth. “There is a double standard of justice, and it’s been going on a long time,” said Jake Thompson, vice-chairman of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe. Nontribal law enforcement officers scrutinize the actions of Native American youths more than non-Indian youths, and that constitutes racial profiling, he said. “I’ve been told that by my own children, and the court stats will prove that out,” Thompson said.

Statistics are not available to show the numbers of whites and Indians prosecuted for crimes in Roberts County or elsewhere in the state. Gov. Bill Janklow commissioned a study of race in the justice system following a series of complaints that culminated with a meeting of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in Rapid City in December 1999. He criticized the report developed from that session but asked a University of South Dakota political science professor to study the issue. That report is due out this summer.

Thompson used a less-scientific method. Turning to the court page of the Feb. 26 edition of The Sisseton Courier newspaper, he pointed to the names of several people convicted in Roberts County courts. “Indian, Indian, Indian, Indian. They’re almost all Indians,” he said, his finger dancing from name to name. Robert’s County State’s Attorney Kay Nikolas said she does not file charges against people based on their race. “I charge people on the basis of the crimes that they committed,” Nikolas said.

Assault on police Shirley Duggan called the police for help with her daughter around 2 a.m. on Feb. 9. Adelia Godfrey had been drinking with friends and was suspected of breaking several windows out of her own home. Her mother later learned that one of the other youths had broken the windows. The teenagers scattered when they saw the police car, but officers found them nearby and took them to the Roberts County Jail, said Doug Flannery, Sisseton’s chief of police.

“When she found out she was going to be detained, she went ape,” Flannery said. Godfrey ran from the booking area into a nearby office, grabbed a fire extinguisher and leaped onto a desk, Flannery said. She threatened to discharge the extinguisher at the officer — and then did. “He had to go to the hospital,” Flannery said. “He broke out in a rash.”

The unnamed officer and a Roberts County deputy sheriff pulled Godfrey from the desk, handcuffed her and placed her in a restraint chair, Flannery said. While subduing the 98-pound girl, the officers were kicked, Flannery said. “She tried to bite the deputy,” he said. “And she spit.”

Flannery said the two resulting aggravated assault charges, each of which carries a maximum prison sentence of 15 years, were appropriate for the offense. “When you kick and spit at officers, that’s what you get,” he said. “My officer got assaulted, sprayed with the fire extinguisher.”

‘The Dungeon’ Since Roberts County has no facilities for holding juvenile offenders, Godfrey was taken to Milbank and lodged in the Grant County Jail. The Grant County Jail is a two-level, 16-bed facility. It has eight beds on the ground floor and eight beds in the basement. Grant County doesn’t have a separate unit for minors but keeps juveniles in the basement unit if there are no adult inmates housed there. When Godfrey arrived Feb. 9, the only inmates in the jail were six adult males, housed on the ground floor. She was placed in the basement, a poorly lighted open bay, by herself. Grant County Sheriff Michael McKernan has a name for the basement unit. “We call it the dungeon,” he said.

Godfrey’s new living quarters are damp and dark and smell of mold. There are no windows, and the two dim bulbs are never turned off. There’s no natural light source and no way to know whether it’s day or night. A camera tracks Godfrey’s every move. When she showers, she crouches down behind a waist-high concrete wall to limit what can be seen of her body on the television monitor in the dispatch office. There are no recreation or exercise facilities. Sheriff McKernan said either he or his only deputy try to take prisoners outside, if time allows. But Godfrey said her only exercise has been a walk to the squad car while she was being taken to court in Sisseton last week.

McKernan has been sheriff for 12 years. The jail, which he inherited, was built in 1972. He’s tried to commence renovations, but there’s no money in the budget, he said. “I get the heebie-jeebies when I’m down there,” Godfrey said. “It’s scary. The only time I get to talk to anybody is the lunch lady, when I get my meals, and just for a couple minutes.”

The conditions of Godfrey’s confinement are worrisome to one juvenile corrections expert. Marc Schindler is an attorney for the Washington, D.C.-based Youth Law Center. His firm successfully sued the state and spawned major changes in its juvenile corrections program after the death of Gina Score at the girls boot camp in Plankinton.

Given Godfrey’s history of self-harm, Schindler had a warning for the state’s attorney and law enforcement in Sisseton. “If the local officials are aware of these conditions and aware of her age and background, they’re putting themselves in serious liability by allowing her to stay there,” Schindler said. “They’re facing major liability issues…She needs to be moved immediately.”

The protest Godfrey’s first court appearance last Thursday morning was accompanied by a small protest outside the courthouse and a Dakota drum group from Agency Village. Roberts County Sheriff Neil Long led Godfrey into the courtroom. She was wearing an orange prison jumpsuit and leg shackles. Thursday was juvenile court day, and the courtroom was full of children and their families. Circuit Judge Jon Flemmer was halfway through explaining their constitutional rights when the drum group started outside the courtroom. Godfrey’s 13-year-old sister entered the courtroom carrying one of the protest signs and was quickly ushered out by Sheriff Long.

The hearing was brief. Godfrey was appointed an attorney and told she would remain in the Grant County Jail until her next hearing Thursday. There is no bail. The state’s attorney said Godfrey should remain in custody “for her own protection and the protection of society.” Godfrey’s mother told the court that her daughter was not a flight risk because she was unemployed, had no money and all of her relatives lived in the Sisseton area. “Milbank is cruel and unusual punishment,” Duggan told the court. “It doesn’t make any sense to me.” Godfrey burst into tears when Flemmer ruled she would be returned to the Grant County Jail.

In an interview after the hearing, Flemmer said he has seen no evidence of racial profiling during his time on the bench. “There isn’t anything I’ve seen in Roberts County that leads me to believe that law enforcement is out there selecting who they prosecute or arrest,” he said. “It’s obvious there may be some societal problems.” Magistrate Judge Tony Portra holds court in Sisseton every Tuesday. Portra’s father is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Tribe in North Dakota. “I would say there’s an inordinate amount of Native Americans in court compared to the percentage of Native Americans in the community,” Portra said. “I don’t know why. I don’t see any evidence of (racial profiling) in court, but I’m not out following the officers around.”

Chief Flannery said his officers don’t profile by race. “We have a policy against it,” he said. But Godfrey said Native American youths get labeled by the town’s police and, once labeled, are subjected to harassment. Flannery disagreed. “We understand the kids that we’re having a lot of trouble with, and when they’re around, we keep an eye on them,” he said. “But we don’t label anyone.”

‘Nothing else I can do’ Shirley Duggan wonders why her daughter faces years in prison when another teen killed a youth and was charged with only driving while intoxicated. “It’s a double standard,” she said. In August 2000, Justin Redday, a tribal member, was struck and killed on a rural road by a white teen. A grand jury indicted the driver for vehicular homicide, but then-State’s Attorney Kerry Cameron dismissed the count and charged the driver in juvenile court with drunken driving. Cameron lost his job as Robert’s County state’s attorney to Nikolas in the November 2000 election. He is now the court-appointed defense attorney for Roberts County, though he was not given Godfrey’s case.

Della Eastman, who founded the Eastern Dakota Chapter of the American Indian Movement in Sisseton, organized protests after Redday was killed. She sat through Godfrey’s hearing with Darlene Pipeboy, Godfrey’s great-aunt. “I see the court as being one-sided. There’s a dual justice system here,” Eastman said. “They try (tribal) members differently than non-Indians. I don’t agree with the court’s decision.” Pipeboy, a respected elder, also is concerned about the result of the hearing. “The racial profiling offsets the feeling the youth should have that they’re a member of the community,” Pipeboy said. “They can’t come and go as they please.”

Godfrey was fatalistic about what transpired. “I have to accept the court’s decision,” she said. “There’s nothing else I can do.” Rose Chase, 66, is one of several of Godfrey’s surrogate grandmothers. “All of this is repetitive,” she said. “When I was young, the Indian agents used to chase me around and bring me home. My mother, who didn’t speak English, worried about me. Eventually, they put me in Plankinton, just like Adelia (Godfrey).”

Said Pipeboy: “The Dakota word for children — wakaneja — means sacred people. That’s how we as a people feel about our youth. But this perspective is not heard in a courtroom, where Indians are looked upon as troublemakers.”

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