A Navajo Nation judge convicted of abusing his office to help relatives in a burglary case won’t serve a single day in jail. Instead, he’ll lose his job and have to pay a $25 fine, if the sanction withstands an appeal. Though the fine may appear light to outsiders, the prosecution is singing the trial judge’s praises while the defense condemns the punishment as a gross injustice.
“I just wanted this guy removed from office, never to be a judge again,” says Richard Wade, hired by the Navajo Nation to act as prosecutor. “If this conviction sticks, I accomplished what I wanted, to remove a bad actor, a corrupt public official from office.”
District Judge Roy Tso Jr. was found guilty by fellow District Judge Genevieve Woody in December. Woody initially handed down just the fine in late February, but in a written sentencing order last week also barred Tso from continuing to work as a judge. Wade sought the maximum penalty of 180 days in jail and a $2,500 fine, but says the outcome is “in line with Navajo tradition, which is not a punishment oriented judicial system like the Anglo system — they recognize that when someone screws up they need to be removed, not necessarily stuck in a jail.”
The Navajo Nation governs the country’s largest American Indian reservation by area and has its own government and court system on land in three states. If Tso was a judge working outside the Navajo court system, Wade says, “he would have spent a good long while in a federal prison.”The case against Tso began with an alleged June 2013 burglary committed by his sister, a niece and a third person. The trio was caught “red-handed” with loot from a storage unit, Wade says.
Tso left the scene as police arrived, according to court testimony from a policewoman, who said he then called the jail and demanded the three be released. Shortly before midnight, Tso allegedly called local prosecutor Ruby Benally with a similar request, followed by another call and a text message.