Montana tribes seek state investigation into Long Soldier’s death

Havre, Montana (AP) May 2010

A group of tribal leaders is asking the state of Montana investigate the death of a teenager who died at the Hill County jail.

In a letter sent earlier this month, the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council questions whether A.J. Long Soldier Jr.’s race was a factor in his treatment. The 18-year-old died Nov. 23 of what a coroner found to be acute alcohol withdrawal.

Long Soldier had been arrested on a misdemeanor warrant four days before his death at Northern Montana Hospital. A coroner’s jury ruled in March that detention officers were not criminally liable in Long Soldier’s death.

“Will anyone be held accountable for the obviously incorrect assessment of A.J.’s serious medical condition that directly led to his death,” said the letter, written by council chairman James Steel Jr.

A spokesman for Attorney General Steve Bullock said the office was reviewing the letter, which was received May 12.

Long Soldier, a star athlete who led Hays-Lodgepole to a Class C state basketball championship as a sophomore in 2007, had been enrolled at Haskell University in Lawrence, Kan. He was arrested while he was home attending his grandfather’s funeral.

Detention officers testified at the coroner’s inquest that on the second day Long Soldier was in custody, he said he needed medical assistance and appeared to be hallucinating. At one point, he complained that someone had pulled his hair out.

“Because A.J. was obviously Indian, incarcerated in county-run facilities, overseen by non-Indian jailers and supervisors, strong concern exists that his lack of adequate care was because of his race,” Steel wrote in the letter.

Steel and the council also raise concerns about Hill County Attorney Gina Dahl’s involvement in the inquest because she is married to the administrator of the county detention center.

Dahl said the fact that she helped the Fergus County coroner with the inquest “does not negate the independent investigation conducted by the state Division of Criminal Investigation nor the independent findings of the coroner’s jury.”

The letter also questioned policies that allow treatment of medical conditions in detention centers as opposed to hospitals, if it is policy to deny medical treatment to inmates charged with misdemeanors or those who are too poor to pay for medical treatment and why Long Soldier was not released on a notice to appear in court so he could receive medical treatment.

The tribal leaders also want to know if any policy changes have occurred to prevent a similar situation from happening again.