Trial of Makah whale hunters may be postponed

Seattle, Washington (AP) 11-07

Defense attorneys for Makah tribal members accused of illegally hunting a gray whale want to postpone their trial until at least March so they have more time to prepare.

Tribal justice has also slowed down because the tribal prosecutor has ties to two of the accused.

The five whalers were indicted on violations of the Marine Mammal Protection Act by a grand jury in U.S. District Court in October. The misdemeanor charges could mean up to a year in jail and a $100,000 fine. No new date has been set for a trial, which was originally set for Nov. 27, but the defense request for a delay means early March or even April, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim Oesterle.

“We would just as soon do this sooner than later,” Oesterle said. The men harpooned and shot the whale in the Strait of Juan de Fuca on Sept. 8 without tribal permission and without a necessary waiver to hunt a whale under the Makah treaty with the United States.

The case has hurt efforts by the tribe to get that waiver, and that makes tribal leaders eager to put the case behind them.

Neah Bay is a small town, and the tribe needs to find someone other than its usual tribal prosecutor to try two of the defendants because she is related to one of them and had a family business relationship with the other.

Members of the Makah tribal council also have been discussing a settlement, in which a single plea agreement could be negotiated between the federal and tribal governments, said Micah McCarty, a tribal council member.

“I believe it would be better for the federal and tribal government to keep this from going to trial,” McCarty said. “We would lean favorably toward that; we have had discussions just recently among the council, and I think my colleagues would concur if this is a possibility.”

John Arum, an attorney for the Makah Nation, said such a discussion is premature but agreed a trial was not the best outcome for anyone.

“We are doing what we can to make it less likely that will happen,” Arum said.

McCarty said the tribe remains committed to prosecution. “We have a sense of urgency in light of our reputation that we are a government that respects the rule of law,” he said.