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Wednesday, 23 April 2014 13:44

Sex abuse case to be retried in tribal court following federal dismissal

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Nine months ago, a federal sex abuse case against Harland Squirrel, of Cherokee, ended in dismissal after the jury failed to reach a verdict. But the case hasn’t gone away. In May, Squirrel will face the charges again in tribal court. 

 

“After the jury failed to reach a verdict for the second time in Federal Court, Jason Smith, my supervisor, requested I make an independent review of the Harland Squirrel case to make a determination as to whether or not this case should be pursued in Tribal Court,” Justin Eason, first assistant tribal prosecutor, said in a statement. 

Under tribal law, the federal and tribal court systems often have concurrent jurisdiction, meaning that both have the ability to try cases involving enrolled members of the tribe when the crime occurs on tribal land. Tribal court can choose to charge federally tried cases that did not result in a guilty verdict, and it doesn’t count as double jeopardy. 

“There’s a lot of very technical rules about what is and is not a federal case,” Eason said. “In the reservation, we have concurrent jurisdiction over things the federal government has jurisdiction over. This would not have been a federal case if it had happened in Bryson City or Sylva.”

The case in question goes back to 2010, when Glenda Wilnoty, who was married to Squirrel at the time, began to suspect that her husband was sexually abusing their adopted son, according to Wilnoty’s testimony. Wilnoty said she left on a four-day business trip in the spring of that year. When she returned home, the child, 4 years old at the time, was acting differently toward Squirrel than he had before. 

“He would act out towards his daddy,” Wilnoty said in court testimony. “He would try to kick him in the groin, which was unusual, and just some things that were said.”

Wilnoty testified that in August of that year, she woke up to see Squirrel with his hand down the pants of the child — who often slept in bed between his parents — while touching himself at the same time. Wilnoty said she did not report the incident because it happened in the middle of the night and she could not be certain she actually saw what she thought she did. When the same thing happened a year later, she testified, she did report it, which began the process of bringing the case to trail. 

The child also testified that his father had touched him inappropriately. 

However, two separate trials ended with a hung jury, at least partially due to the way the case was investigated. 

“This case represents an absolute total system failure,” Judge Martin Reidinger said in his closing remarks. “This case represents how the system not only failed [the child] because of the damage that has been done to him by the manner in which this was pursued. The system has also failed Harland Squirrel because justice was not pursued here; a result was pursued.”

Testimony showed that, while the first alleged incident occurred in 2010, Wilnoty did not seek help until a full year later in 2011, when she testified the second incident occurred. However, Detective Lloyd Wolf of the Cherokee Police Department told the jury that, in the nearly five months between receiving a report of the alleged abuse and Squirrel’s confession at the State Bureau of Investigations office in Asheville, he did not investigate the validity of Wilnoty’s report. While the alleged victim was no longer living at the home during that time, Squirrel’s daughter, a high school student, was. 

“I wasn’t investigating her. I was investigating him,” Wolf said of Wilnoty in court. 

Testimony also raised questions about whether the child’s testimony had been coached. That concern came to light in particular from a video-taped interview between the child and Cindy McJunkin, a child forensic interviewer. Reidinger instructed the jury to disregard the video except for determining the accuracy of the child’s testimony.

Squirrel delivered a signed confession after a three-hour interview with SBI Agent Chris Smith — during a previous interview, Squirrel had denied the allegations. In the confession, he admitted that on two occasions, he had touched the child on the butt while masturbating. After delivering the confession, Squirrel drove away and was not arrested for some time afterward. 

“He’d just confessed to molesting a child in your presence. You got him to sign your notes. It’s not an appropriate time to arrest him? That’s your testimony?” Defense Attorney Rich Cassady asked Wolf in court. 

“That’s it,” Wolf answered. 

Judge Reidinger then sustained objections to Cassady’s follow-up questions, which asked whether the decision to delay arrest had anything to do with the fact that certain rights, such as the right to an attorney, kick in after an arrest. Cherokee Police Chief Ben Reed did not return multiple messages requesting comment.

“There were no winners in this case, only losers, and that’s partly because of the way things were done,” Reidinger said in his conclusion. “I cannot express to you how profound my disappointment is in the way all things were done.”

However, Tribal Court will take another look at the case. Squirrel is charged with five counts each of aggravated sexual abuse and abusive sexual contact. If convicted on all 10 counts, he could spend up to nine years in jail. 

The nine-month gap between the federal case’s dismissal and the tribal charges was principally due to the work involved in reviewing such a large case file, Easton said. He was given the file in late summer last year but was not able to begin reviewing it immediately, as there were other cases demanding his attention. Then the transcripts and video evidence took time to comb through. 

“In any child sex case, there’s a lot of evidence to consider,” he said. 

Squirrel was charged on March 19 and let out on a $5,000 unsecured bond. While a secured bond requires the accused to pay money up front, which would be forfeited did he or she not appear in court, an unsecured bond merely requires that the accused sign a contract promising to pay the money should he or she fail to appear. 

The trial is set for May 28.

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