District Judge Bart Fite
CN district judge found dead
MUSKOGEE, Okla. – Longtime Cherokee Nation District Court Judge Bart Fite was found dead on April 19 at his home from an apparent suicide, officials say.
Officials said Muskogee Police were dispatched to the home of Fite, who was also a Muskogee municipal judge, at 10:30 p.m. in reference to a shooting. Fite was found dead from what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Muskogee Police Officer Lincoln Anderson said.
Fite, who had served as a CN District Court judge for 17 years, had been accused of domestic assault and battery but not charged.
According to reports, Muskogee Police arrested the 57-year-old on April 14 after his wife gave a statement to officers about an earlier incident. Reports state that officers noted signs of physical abuse, which they believed were consistent with her statement. However, Fite and his wife said he did not hit her or cause her any injury, reports state.
He was booked into the Muskogee County/City Detention Facility and released on $2,500 bond.
According to a Muskogee Phoenix report, Fite’s wife never intended for her husband to be arrested and that she hoped going to police to file a temporary restraining order would allow her to stay in the couple’s home. The story states that in an earlier argument Fite had threatened to file for divorce and to try to evict her from the home.
Anderson, the police department’s spokesman, said further details would not be released while the investigation was ongoing.
Muskogee District Attorney Orvil Loge has requested to recuse himself from the potential case and that a district attorney outside of Muskogee handle the case “to avoid the appearance of impropriety.”
CN Courthouse officials released a statement on April 20 stating, “It is with great sadness that the Court announces the passing of District Judge Bart Fite. Judge Fite served as District Judge for the past 17 years. He had previously served as Tribal Prosecutor from 1995 to 1997. His invaluable service to the Cherokee Nation will certainly be missed. Please keep his family and the Court staff in your hearts and prayers at this most difficult time.”
Principal Chief Bill John Baker said the tribe’s legal community suffered a “tremendous loss” with Fite’s death.
“We are deeply saddened at the passing of District Judge Bart Fite. It is a tremendous loss for the Cherokee Nation’s legal community. As an attorney and judge, Bart was always fair and honest. Additionally, he was a good mentor to many young Cherokee legal scholars, willing to share his knowledge and expertise. He will be remembered as a kind and knowledgeable protector of the law. On behalf of Deputy Chief S. Joe Crittenden and myself, we are keeping the Fite family in our thoughts and prayers in the coming days,” Baker said.
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – On Oct. 9, Native Americans, including many Cherokees, celebrated Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day in Tahlequah and on Northeastern State University’s campus. The following Cherokee Phoenix video highlights people and events of the day.
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A small Oklahoma town is irate that the state has decided to restore its Capitol with marble from a Chinese vendor over marble produced from the town's own quarry.
Locals in Marble City, located near the Arkansas border, say the marble used for the project should come from Oklahoma, not another country.
Over the next four years, workers will replace parts of the Capitol's lowest floor, eventually laying down about 25,000 square feet of marble.
One of the bids was linked to Polycor, a manufacturing company that produces marble from a quarry in Marble City.
The Oklahoman reports that construction officials said the bid using those materials came in over budget, and called the Chinese marble "superior" to the quality of the Polycor product in every measurement category.
TULSA, Okla. (AP) — Three hung juries in the case of a white former Oklahoma police officer charged with fatally shooting his daughter's black boyfriend had one thing in common besides unwillingness to convict: Each had only one African-American juror.
Race has been an undercurrent in ex-Tulsa officer Shannon Kepler's first-degree murder case, which is headed for a fourth trial. Criminal law experts and U.S. Supreme Court cases point to the importance of racial identity and policing when it comes to jury selection, which is set to start Monday.
Kepler, a 24-year veteran of the force, was off duty in August 2014 when he fatally shot 19-year-old Jeremey Lake, who had just started dating Kepler's daughter. Kepler doesn't deny pulling the trigger but says he did so only because he thought Lake was armed. No weapon was found on or near Lake's body.
Officers across the U.S. involved in fatal shootings of black residents have recently faced similar trials. In the past year alone — including in Tulsa — juries were unwilling to vote for a conviction or prosecutors were unwilling to charge officers in cases from Baltimore to St. Louis. In May, a jury acquitted now-former Tulsa officer Betty Jo Shelby in the killing of an unarmed black man, which roiled the city's black community.
"I don't see how race cannot play a role," said Kris McDaniel-Miccio, a professor at Sturm College of Law at the University of Denver and a former Bronx-based prosecutor. "I don't think there's any way to get around it because of what has happened in this community."
The racial makeup of the juries in Kepler's previous trials prompted criticism from at least one civil rights group.
Tulsa activist Marq Lewis with We the People Oklahoma said Kepler's defense attorneys have been booting potential jurors based on skin color.
"The last three juries somehow felt that Jeremey was a bad person because he was black," Lewis said. "They couldn't bring themselves to believe this off-duty officer would literally shoot someone in cold blood without thinking somehow the black guy is sinister and he's done something bad."
Richard O'Carroll, Kepler's defense attorney, has denied race played a role in Lake's killing. O'Carroll did not return messages this past week seeking comment on the case.
Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler declined to comment specifically on the racial makeup of the past juries, but acknowledged "frustration" with the results of the trials.
"I know I had citizens who put in a lot of effort and worked very hard and I know from their perspective they are frustrated as well," Kunzweiler said.
Another racial element was recently added to the case when Kepler argued that he couldn't be tried by state prosecutors because he's a member of an American Indian tribe. A judge determined the fourth trial could move forward in state court. Kepler says he's 1/128th Muscogee (Creek).
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-1 that prosecutors violated the Constitution by excluding African-Americans from an all-white jury that convicted a black Georgia death row inmate of killing a white woman. The decision emphasized rules set by the court in 1986 to prevent racial discrimination in jury selection.
Seating more jurors of color — especially in cases involving police who have fatally shot people — could be a factor in how a jury ultimately votes, said Bridgette Baldwin, professor of law at Western New England University in Springfield, Massachusetts.
"The life experience is different," said Baldwin, who is black. "I may not be scared of a young male with a hoodie on because I've been socialized to be around these types of individuals. You see things differently, you hear things differently, you process things differently."
McDaniel-Miccio, the Denver law professor, said the Kepler case illustrates what the U.S. is trying to address when it comes to race, police and the justice system.
"How many generations do we have to have pass before we come to the honest realization that there is a distinct racial and ethnic asymmetry in this country?" she said. "We live in a world where we should believe that when something like this happens, they will be facing justice and they will be held accountable if they broke the law — no more, no less.”
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — The Cherokee Nation will install storm shelters in its Head Start campuses after recently receiving an $800,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The above-ground storm shelters will protect nearly 300 toddlers, preschoolers and staff at seven Head Start sites from severe weather and will be used as multipurpose facilities at the centers. An internal notification system for staff is also being implemented.
“Ensuring our most valuable resource, our children, are able to stay safe and keep sheltered during a life-threatening storm gives us all a better peace of mind,” Deputy Chief S. Joe Crittenden said. “Providing these additional levels of protection is a responsibility we take very seriously at Cherokee Nation. In northeast Oklahoma, dangerous weather is an inevitability we must prepare for, and these storm shelters will enable the tribe to offer Cherokee families a better sense of security when it comes to their kids.”
The CN is one of 77 tribes to receive a portion of $55.2 million worth of Indian Community Development Block Grants awarded by HUD on Sept. 14. The grants are meant to improve housing conditions and community amenities and to stimulate economic development across Indian Country.
Shelters built at the seven Head Start campuses will be for the use of students, teachers, parents or visitors who are on-site during an emergency and will not be open for general community use.
“This grant is providing a great opportunity to keep our students out of harm’s way during severe weather,” Ron Etheridge, deputy executive director of CN Education Services, said. “I can think of no better investment than in the safety of our children and the staff charged with teaching those students on a daily basis.”
The tribe’s Head Start program worked with the Cherokee Nation Marshal Service and Emergency Management to apply for the grant. Planning for the project is underway, and installation must be complete within 24 months.
Head Start campuses that will receive storm shelters are the Children’s Village in Tahlequah, Cherry Tree campus in Stilwell, Redbird campus in Stilwell, Jay campus, Kenwood campus, Wauhillau campus in Nowata and Pryor campus.
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A hearing examiner has determined that Oklahoma City is entitled to a permit for water from a reservoir in the southeastern part of the state.
The city seeks to take up to 115,000 acre feet (nearly 1.42 million cubic meters) of water annually from the Sardis Lake reservoir in the Kiamichi River basin, The Oklahoman reported . The reservoir impounds water from Jack Fork Creek, which is a tributary of the river.
The city plans to invest $1 billion in infrastructure upgrades to divert the water to Lake Stanley Draper.
Jim Couch, the city's manager, said the water will help the city's future growth.
The report by hearing examiner Lyn Martin-Diehl was released Tuesday. It said the water the city is seeking is available for appropriation and that the city's plans will put the water to beneficial use, which is a requirement under the law for obtaining a permit.
The Oklahoma Water Resources Board will consider Martin-Diehl's recommendations.
Opponents of the permit say it negatively would affect the Kiamichi's flow as well as wildlife and tourism in the area.
Martin-Diehl said the city's use of Sardis water won't interfere with the area's water needs with the proper management.
Acquiring the permit is one of the steps necessary to finalize last year's water settlement between the city, the state, and Choctaw and Chickasaw nations. The settlement aims to end litigation over water management in southeastern Oklahoma.
The settlement includes plans to manage the reservoir's levels and the river's flow as well as ensure tribes have a role in resource management in the region.
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – On Oct. 10, Election Commissioner Teresa Hart was presented a letter commending her for her years of service to the Cherokee Nation and citing that her service with the commission “has come to a close.”
In the letter, Principal Chief Bill John Baker thanked Hart for her service with the commission.
“On behalf of the Cherokee Nation I want to thank you for your service as a Commissioner of the Cherokee Nation Election Commission,” the letter states. “During your years of service on the Election Commission, there has been much progress pertaining to the Cherokee Nation Election process. This progress could not have happened without the guidance of the Commissioners, and for that you should be commended.”
Hart said she appreciated the opportunity to serve on the EC.
“My life has truly been blessed. I have met so many wonderful people and made several lasting friendships,” she said. “The past year has not been as enjoyable to me, and I’m grateful to be moving on. Thank you Chief Baker for giving me this opportunity.”
Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. shared his admiration for the work Hart has done at the EC.
“We appreciate Teresa’s service to the Cherokee people. Those who serve on Cherokee Nation boards and commissions sacrifice so much of their time and share their talents in the name of good government. Teresa certainly did so and she is rightfully proud of her tenure on the CNEC.”
According to a 2013 Cherokee Phoenix story, Hart was appointed by Baker to take the seat of former Commissioner Lindsay Earls. Hart served in her first EC meeting in September 2013.
Hart’s letter of dismissal was accompanied with a letter of appointment for Randy Campbell.
According to the letter, Baker informed Tribal Councilors that he would be appointing Campbell to fill the vacancy with a four-year term beginning on Oct. 1 and concluding on Oct. 1, 2021.
“I’m pleased to appoint Randy Campbell to the Cherokee Nation Election Commission,” Principal Chief Bill John Baker said. “Randy has tremendous experience in organizational management which will be beneficial to the election commission.”
Newly appointed commissioner Campbell spent 35 years with the Teamsters Local Union 523 where he served as president and business manager before retiring in 2007. He also served on the executive board of the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations). “Its an honor that my chief and the rest of the board would ask me to be involved and take this position on. I hope I can fulfill their expectations and plan to do a great job.” Campbell said.