FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — The mother of a 2-year-old girl whose death became emblematic of the lack of justice on tribal lands has pleaded guilty to a homicide charge in Navajo Nation court.
Norena Joe was sentenced this week to a year in jail, which was suspended, and two years of probation. The acknowledgement that she was criminally negligent came seven years after the death of her daughter, Kiara Harvey.
The girl’s skull was swollen, and she had hemorrhages around her brain when authorities found her at home in Cove on the reservation. A medical examiner concluded Kiara had been beaten to death, but Joe told authorities she accidentally rolled onto her daughter in bed, suffocating her.
Joe cannot leave the Navajo Nation or New Mexico while on probation and cannot drink alcohol or be in businesses that serve alcohol. She’ll also be watched by the tribe’s Social Services Division to ensure any children living with her are safe.
“I really believe as best as it could, justice was served here,” prosecutor Richard Wade said Wednesday.
Kiara’s death was the subject of an Associated Press review of cases from Arizona reservations that federal prosecutors declined over a 9-month span in 2010.
The Navajo Nation pursued the case after the U.S. Attorney’s Office said the evidence wasn’t solid enough to charge Kiara’s mother or father, who were in the room around the time she died in 2008. The medical examiner said Kiara was “beaten by assailant(s)” and couldn’t rule out that the child was with her father at the time she was fatally injured.
Former Navajo Nation chief prosecutor Bernadine Martin was convinced Joe was at fault. She charged Joe with homicide in 2011, three days before the tribe’s statute of limitations was set to expire but didn’t see it through. She left the office two weeks ago.
Martin said Wednesday she was disappointed that Joe won’t serve any time in jail, but the tribe would have had a difficult time securing it because Joe didn’t have a criminal history. Martin said the plea is important to ensure justice for Kiara, whose autopsy photos are etched into her memory.
“She would have gotten through some milestones, gotten through head start graduation, kindergarten, around third grade with a very promising future … but she was denied that by her own mother,” Martin said.
Joe’s attorney, David Jordan, declined to comment on the case.
The tribe’s criminal homicide charge doesn’t distinguish between negligence and intent. But Wade said he was prepared to present both theories to a jury during a trial that was scheduled to begin Monday.
Wade said a potential defense raised by Jordan was that Joe wasn’t to blame. Other things factored into the decision to offer a plea agreement, including the cost associated with expert testimony and a low response to jury questionnaires, Wade said.
He credited Martin with pushing the case through the tribal court. MacDonald Rominger, the head of the FBI’s northern Arizona office at the time of Kiara’s death, said the case would have been difficult to prove from a federal standpoint but he was pleased to hear it was resolved in tribal court.
Tribes often rely on the federal government to prosecute homicides because the sentences are much stiffer than tribes can secure. Congress limited tribes to charging misdemeanor crimes that carry a maximum penalty of a year in jail, although some can pursue felony charges with longer sentences if they meet certain requirements.
The conviction doesn’t prevent federal prosecutors from taking another look at the case because double jeopardy doesn’t apply. Wade said he has no plans to refer the case to federal prosecutors. But former Arizona U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton, who isn’t involved in the case, said it would be a fair request if the plea conforms to federal constitutional requirements and there’s corroborating evidence.
Cosme Lopez, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona, said a guilty plea alone isn’t enough to pursue a federal case. Federal prosecutors would have to prove Joe is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Felicia Fonseca can be reached at http://twitter.com/FonsecaAP