A homicide trial in Colville Tribal Court has been rescheduled for Nov. 15-17 because of an improper discussion between a witness and a juror.
A mistrial was declared Friday shortly after testimony was to begin in the case of Benjamin Joseph Campbell. Esther Payne, one of two tribal prosecutors, said attorneys questioned the juror and witness when they were seen talking, and found their accounts of the conversation didn’t agree.
Any conversation between a juror and a witness is improper, but attorneys were especially concerned when it appeared that one or the other of the offending parties in the Campbell case didn’t tell the truth about what was discussed, Payne said.
Campbell, 18, is charged with criminal homicide, obstructing justice, being a minor in possession of alcohol and possession of drug paraphernalia. He is accused of shooting Ronald Dean Thomas Jr., also 18, to death when they got into an argument at a party Jan. 12 at a home on the Colville Agency campus near Nespelem, Wash.
The Colville Agency campus is the home of government offices for the Colville Confederated Tribes.
According to tribal police, everyone at the house where Thomas died had been drinking when the shooting occurred shortly after 9 p.m. Witnesses said they heard gunshots when Thomas and Campbell went inside the house after fighting on the lawn. Then witnesses saw Campbell run out of the house and drive away, police reported.
Thomas was shot in the abdomen with a 9 mm pistol and bled to death, according to police and court documents. Campbell was charged with obstructing justice for allegedly hiding the pistol.
Officers found Campbell at a nearby home the next morning and arrested him without incident.
Members of the victim’s family have questioned why Campbell was charged in tribal court, where the maximum penalty for the most serious offenses is a year in jail. If convicted of all the charges against him, Campbell would face a maximum sentence of approximately 2 3/4 years in the tribal jail.
Homicides involving Native Americans on reservations typically are prosecuted in federal court, where the statutory maximum penalty is 10 years for voluntary manslaughter and life in prison for second-degree murder.
“It’s just ridiculous,” said Shawnee Marchand, Thomas’ sister, of the lack of federal charges.
However, Payne said federal charges are possible. Campbell could be convicted in both tribal and federal court without unconstitutional double jeopardy because the federal and tribal governments are considered separate sovereigns.
Payne said officials in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Spokane haven’t decided whether to ask a grand jury to bring charges against Campbell.
“They’re still investigating,” Payne said. “They’re definitely interested in it.”
An assistant U.S. attorney in Spokane declined to comment on the possibility of federal charges.
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