The family of a Native American woman who shot dead her alleged rapist in what she says was self defence, has appealed to a federal judge who could jail her for almost 20 years.
Maddesyn George, 27, who has an 18-month-old child, is due to next month appear before a judge who will determine her fate over an incident that happened last summer.
On July 12 2020, on the Coleville Indian Reservation in eastern Washington state, Ms George shot and killed Kristopher “Buddy” Graber as he was approaching her car window. She has alleged Graber had raped her the night before and that she feared for her life.
Her case was initially investigated by tribal prosecutors, before being taken over by the federal authorities who charged her with second-degree murder, possession of a stolen firearm, robbery, and possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine.
Ms George, who has spent 15 months in jail awaiting a trial date, faces up to 17 years in jail, most likely at the federal women’s prison at Dublin, California, which her family says is 1,000 miles away.
“Maddesyn has the heart of gold. She would help anybody. In the heat of things, and with him trying to hurt her again, she protected herself,” Ms George’s mother, Jody George, said in a video made as part of a campaign to draw awareness to the case.
Ms George’s lawyer, Steve Graham, told The Independent that the defence team agreed she fatally shot Graber. But he said she did so after he had raped her, and as she feared for her well being.
“She feared for her life because of his actions the night before,” he said. “He had raped her the night before, and he was a notoriously violent person.”
In a filing to federal prosecutors this summer, Mr Graham wrote: “Maddesyn George acted in self-defense when she took the life of Kristopher Graber. She was given the methamphetamine and money that she left Mr Graber’s house with. When Mr Graber was shot, he was coming after her and threatening her, and she was scared that she was going to be killed, gravely injured or raped (again).”
Mr Graham also sent to prosecutors a photograph of steel handcuffs allegedly taken next to Graber’s bed. He wrote that prosecutors were seeking to deny her the right to use self defence in her legal case. He claimed prosectors were “gas-lighting” his client by trying to suggest she had not been raped.
He added: “Self-defence, as asserted by Maddesyn George, is not at all an unconventional defence under American law.”
At the end of July, Ms George entered into a deal with federal prosecutors that would see her plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter and possession of more than five grammes of methamphetamine with intent to supply. The drug charge carries a minimum sentence of five years, and a maximum of 40.
Tess Abrahamson-Richards, a member of Ms George’s support team, said her client took the deal because they calculated it was the best chance to get her “home to her baby as soon as possible because of the huge sentence they were threatening her with before that”.
In response to specific questions about the case, federal prosecutors shared with The Independent an additional filing to the court made in September.
In it, they wrote that the defendant “fired a single gunshot from behind a locked car door at Kristopher Graber, striking him in the heart. Graber, who had a cigarette in his left hand when he died, had approached George on the morning of July 12 2020 to recover money, drugs, and a gun, which George stole from him the night before”.
It added: “At a minimum, she showed extreme recklessness by picking up a loaded firearm off the floorboard, pointing it at the victim, and firing it, while the victim was on the other side of the locked car door smoking a cigarette.”
Asked about the claim by Ms George that she is being prevented from claiming she acted in self defence after being raped, the prosecutors pointed to part of the plea agreement that said she was not precluded from raising additional arguments or facts at the time of sentencing.
— Free Maddesyn George (@FreeMaddesyn) October 8, 2021
Campaigners say the case of Ms George highlights the way Native American women, who are the victims of violence far more often than white women, are frequently treated by the authorities. For instance, they say Ms George was not provided with a rape kit when she was initially detained by tribal authorities, despite her telling them she had been assaulted.
Campaigners say a 2016 study released by the National Institute of Justice, found more than 80 per cent of Indigenous Americans have experienced some form of violence, and more than half of Indigenous women have suffered sexual violence. They say the legal system more often neglects or exacerbates harm rather than providing support and reparation.
Earth-Feather Sovereign, a member of the Colville Tribes and founder of the nonprofit group Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Washington, said the persecution of Indigenous people that started centuries ago with Christopher Columbus was continuing to this day.
Too many non-native people failed to see Indigenous communities as fully human, she said, and made generalisations about drug use.
“Some people think that getting raped is part of that life if you use drugs,” she said. “But it is not. It is absolutely not acceptable. I think Maddysen did not know who to turn to.”
Even though Ms George has made a plea agreement, the court is not obliged to accept the sentencing recommendations made by prosecutors.
As a result, federal judge Rosanna Peterson, of the Eastern District of Washington, could sentence Ms George to as much as 17 years when she sits on 2 November.
In their filing last month, federal prosecutors based in the city of Spokane, 120 miles from the Colville reservation, said they would request a sentence of “17 years’ incarceration and a lifetime term of supervised release”. They acknowledged 17 years was above advisory sentencing guidelines range, but claimed it was appropriate given Ms George’s criminal history.
The Colville Tribal Police, which initially detained Ms George, failed to answer questions. The Department of Justice did not respond to questions. The family of Mr Graber, who allegedly raped Ms George, did not respond to messages sent by The Independent.
A report in The Inlander quoted a member of his family as saying they did not want to discuss the case until after hearing.
Ms Abrahamson-Richards said Ms George’s friends and supporters were hoping the judge would “dismiss and vacate the charges against her and that she could go home to be with her baby girl”.
Ms George’s mother added: “She didn’t deserve what happened to her. I just wish she was with me now. I just want to hold her and hug her. I just miss her so much.”