Murder is still a “capital crime” with no statute of limitations, even if the defendant can’t be executed under tribal law, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said.
In a 2-1 ruling, the appeals court this week refused to overturn the conviction of James Gallaher, a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes, who was arrested nearly 15 years after killing his cousin Edwin Pooler. Although Gallaher eventually pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the case, he argued that charges shouldn’t have been brought because the five-year statute of limitations for most felonies had long since run out.
That time limit should apply, not the unlimited time for prosecution the federal courts usually apply to murder cases, his attorney argued, because the Colville tribe does not allow the death penalty for murder on the reservation. The statute of limitations is waived only for capital crimes, Gallaher’s attorney argued.
U.S. District Judge Lonny Suko disagreed last year and the appeals court backed him up. “First-degree murder remains a capital offense, regardless of whether capital punishment can be imposed in a particular case,” Judge Raymond Fisher wrote.
Gallaher and Pooler lived together on the Colville Reservation in 1991 with Gallaher’s girlfriend and their baby daughter. During a quarrel, Gallaher broke Pooler’s neck and killed him, then hid the body.
Pooler’s fate was a mystery for more than a decade and federal prosecutors in Spokane didn’t have enough evidence to indict Gallaher until 2006. Gallaher eventually entered a conditional plea of guilty to involuntary manslaughter, but appealed the question of whether the statute of limitations had run out.
A 1994 law gives tribes the authority to decide whether the death penalty can be imposed on their reservations, a choice similar to what states have on capital punishment, Fisher wrote: “Although a shorter statute of limitations would benefit criminal defendants … it would generate unique injustice for Indian victims.”