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Alcohol-Facilitated Sexual Assault in Indian Country: Navajo Nation (Case Study)

OVC and the Office on Violence Against Women collaborated to produce this four-video series, designed for criminal justice personnel, victim advocates, and allied professionals who work with victims of sexual assault in Indian Country. This case study provides information about trial techniques for and multidisciplinary responses to cases of alcohol-facilitated sexual assault.

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DAVID ADAMS, SPECIAL AUSA, DISTRICT OF NEW MEXICO, SAULT STE MARIE TRIBE OF CHIPPEWA INDIANS: Good afternoon, everyone. My name is David Adams and I'm the Special Assistant with the United States Attorney's Office in the District of New Mexico. On behalf of the panel that I'm with, we'd like to thank the Navajo Nation and others that have gathered to help put on this conference. We really appreciate the invitation and the opportunity to share a case that we had in the District of New Mexico. I've been going to a lot of these conferences, and each one is an opportunity to meet somebody new or to send a message about the importance of collaboration and working together in alcohol-facilitated sexual assault cases.

JEFFERSON JOE, CRIMINAL INVESTIGAOR, NAVAJO NATION/BIA, NAVAJO NATION: The Navajo Nation reservation is a vast area. There's seven police districts. Shiprock, unfortunately, with the Criminal Investigations Office—our office—the majority of our cases involve sexual assaults. And I would say eight or nine out of ten, they involve alcohol.

DAVID ADAMS: In this particular case we charged 18 USC, 2242 (2)(B), one of many statutes available to charge sexual abuse.

JEFFERSON JOE: Those type of cases are difficult to work, especially if a victim had been drinking and has no knowledge of what took place. Once you start building your case, don't have any preconceived notions. Either you prove or disprove the allegation. That takes a lot of legwork.

ALANNA, SEXUAL ASSAULT SURVIVOR, NAVAJO NATION: In May of 2010, one in three Native American women would be victims of sexual assault. I was one of them. It was the day following my birthday during finals week. I just turned 20 years old and finished up my second year at San Juan College. Most of my friends from high school were still among my close friends at the time, and we decided to continue to celebrate my birthday after I was done with school. It was probably one of my first parties where I actually—I don't know—I got, I guess, pretty intoxicated. I didn't want to go home. Stephanie and Dmitri designated a room just for the girls to sleep in, so there were three of us in the room. And throughout the night, you know, other people were still, like, being loud and drinking still.

DAVID ADAMS: A lot of the males and one of the females, actually, stayed up until the early hours of 3, 4, 5 a.m., and they continued drinking, drinking a significant amount of alcohol.

ALANNA: I woke up and I found a...a man on top of me. I didn't realize, like, what was going on at the time, but I just remember the girl sleeping next to me saying, "What the hell are you doing? Get up. Get off of her." And then I remember the guy getting off of me and pulling up his pants and saying, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," and walking out of the room. Everybody was shaken up about what happened and we didn't know what to do. We were 19, 20 years old, and not being educated about sexual assaults previous to this, you know, we didn't know what steps to take. But I know that I, you know, I wanted—I needed help, because something had happened to me. And so I called one of my older sisters and I told her what happened. And it was pretty, um, pretty tough to tell somebody, you know, who loves you, like, "This happened to me and I need your help."

JEFFERSON JOE: I get a call from the patrol section saying that there's a young lady at the medical center in Shiprock, New Mexico, that is alleged to have been a victim of a sexual assault. I meet Alanna, and I immediately notice that she's in distress, she's upset, and she's crying. It's important to note that, because that's your foundation as far as the investigation goes.

ALANNA: He took pictures and he got my story.

JEFFERSON JOE: It's important to take photos. It shows her demeanor, how she had been crying, and the clothing she had been wearing during this incident. The image that most of these sexual assault victims display, and that's the image that I'm trying to show people that are going to be involved with this case later on.

ALANNA: I wanted justice to be served, so he directed me to get a SANE exam. I was just, like, shaking and, like, just distraught. It was just so scary that I couldn't have the strength to even sit up in a car. We arrived around 11 a.m., and the nurse welcomed me and she, you know, gave me a tour of the...the facility and she gave me a...a little teddy bear and a blanket. That blanket was definitely comforting. You know, something as insignificant as a blanket could provide comfort for such a tragic event.

DAVID ADAMS: The SANE nurse developed a good rapport with Alanna in a very short amount of time. She did a very extensive exam of Alanna's entire body, and in order to do that, she has to ask her a lot of questions about what had happened, and that way she could properly diagnose and treat her, if need be.

ALANNA: The day that it happened, I told my family about it and what I was going to do. And I just remember seeing my family's faces. Everybody just sunk in their seats. And especially my brothers, they...they really had to control their anger.

SHARON VANDEVER, VICTIM-WITNESS ADVOCATE, USAO, DISTRICT OF NEW MEXICO, NAVAJO NATION: I met with Alanna right after the indictment of the case. As soon as charges are filed, I'll go out and I'll meet the families in person. I talk to them about what I do, who I am, and what office I represent. What's happening to them is traumatic, But you, as a victim's advocate, can make a big difference in a person's life. In the beginning, for a victim, it's...it's really...it's an emotional roller coaster.

ALANNA: They list it all in the pamphlets—like, what happens, like, what kind of emotions you're...you're going to be feeling, like depression, flashbacks, terror—night terrors. That happened to me for about 2 weeks. And, you know, I, you know, I was scared.

JEFFERSON JOE: Testimonies, of course, are real crucial, so we need to get statements as soon as possible. You never know, one of the witnesses might turn on and just say, "Hey, I didn't see anything, didn't smell anything, didn't hear anything."

DAVID ADAMS: We did a warrant and did DNA swabs of the defendant, and they found his DNA inside Alanna Yazzie.

JEFFERSON JOE: When it was discovered that Alanna had been assaulted, people started getting mad. And so there were some telephone texts going on back and forth between M**** H**** and Alanna's friends indicating that he was sorry for what he did. He's doing the texting himself, so those texts were a crucial part of the investigation.

DAVID ADAMS: We didn't allege force in the case because Alanna was passed out and unable to consent or not consent to having any sexual intercourse. Prior to trial, his whole defense was that he never went to that room, never did any acts, never touched her. And obviously when that evidence comes back that his DNA was confirmed to be a match found inside Alanna, he no longer could stick with that defense anymore, and he went with the defense that it was consensual and that she wanted it.

JEFFERSON JOE: When you get to the trial phase, individuals like Alanna, you know, they're victims, but they're not portrayed as victims during trial.

DAVID ADAMS: Their defense in itself was cruel, because you have somebody who denied ever being involved in this act, never going into that bedroom. And then all of a sudden you go to a trial and you try to put all the blame on the victim in the case. As if they're not going through enough, you add additional trauma and try to put her in the spotlight. Kyle Nayback was the lead counsel on the case, and he was going to be doing the direct examination of Alanna at trial. I would put myself in the shoes of a defense attorney and ask her questions that would probably be asked at trial, like, "When the defendant walked into that bedroom, you reached up and grabbed him, didn't you? You wanted this to happen, didn't you?"

ALANNA: I had to make sure that I had the mindset that, you know, I'm fighting for myself. And I just had to prepare myself for that.

SHARON VANDEVER: Bottom line, we always told her, "Make sure you just tell the truth. You were there that night, you know what happened to you." And so that was one of the things that we've always ensured that she knew, was that that was all we were seeking, was just for her to tell the truth.

DAVID ADAMS: The defense attorney did go through all those questions, and Alanna never swayed and fell for any of the tactics that they have, in hoping that they get her to say something that's probably misrepresented by what a defense attorney is saying to them.

ALANNA: I spoke in front of the judge to let him know, like, how it affected me. This happens all the time to a lot of people. We were able to get him to admit to it. After 4 years, it's rewarding to see the defendant say, you know, "I did it."

DAVID ADAMS: M**** H**** received around 13 years in prison for what he did. And my hope is that the system works and that he does receive the help that he needs and the rehabilitation that he needs in the process as well, because 13 years from now—less than that now—he'll be getting out and reintegrating back into the community.

ALANNA: I don't think I could have come out of this as strong as I have without support. Jefferson Joe, Sharon Vandever, Kyle Nayback, and David Adams were the most influential people in my life during these 4 years because they helped me understand the judicial system and they walked me through everything. It took a lot of strength for me to proceed with it. On the Navajo reservation, I've met so many family members—cousins, sisters, and friends— a lot of them have been sexually assaulted but none of them went forth with it. So I think I was the first person among the people I knew to actually do something about it. This is a, unfortunately, a nonstop activity, a criminal activity. We need to stop the cycle.

DAVID ADAMS: I think that we all have a responsibility in doing that, so, in turn, we can provide justice in cases like this for Alanna and all the Alannas out there.

Date Created: June 16, 2020