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Skewed justice discards Native American men

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Killing remains unsolved

By Mark Maynard

In many ways, Sonny Wayne Lewis is emblematic of the daily conflict young Native American men face, trying to exist between two disparate worlds. The post-colonial pressures of money, career, and formal education come up against the traditional Native expectations of family, friends and community. 

Sonny Wayne Lewis
Sonny Wayne Lewis

Lewis was torn between these cultures, leading to frequent interactions with a justice system that incarcerates Native people at rates more than double that of whites, and continues to fail him almost 10 years after his unsolved killing – at age 25 – mired in the bureaucracy of incoherent jurisdictions, and a lack of clear answers. 

Lewis, a Paiute-Shoshone, grew up on the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, a small slice of tribal land in the urban heart of Reno. At the time of his death, he was pursuing his GED, had taken technical courses at the local community college, and was working as an installer of high-tech solar panels.

According to Trisha Taylor, who dated Lewis on-and-off for five years, he enjoyed spending time with his young children, taking them to the park to feed ducks, or to his girlfriend’s house to play video games. 

“It’s easier to prosecute this young Native man with a criminal history than it is to dig for his killer.”

“Sonny was a good kid,” said his cousin, Ruth Sampson. Lewis’s extended family started a boxing club in the backyard of a home on the colony, and he was proving himself in the ring by the age of 17.

“He was a good boxer – he took pride in that,” said Sampson.

He was also well-known by tribal and local police. His criminal history was serious: assault with a deadly weapon, gang affiliation, and several DUIs. In 2009, Lewis was represented by Patrick McGinnis, a public defender (Nevada is one of 16 states that does not have a commission overseeing and evaluating indigent defense services). Court documents reveal a struggle with alcohol abuse and poor decision-making. 

“He was associating with individuals that he knew he shouldn’t,” McGinnis testified according to a 2009 court transcript. “The important thing is for Mr. Lewis to address his alcohol and/or drug problems. He clearly recognizes when he drinks alcohol he is not the same person.”

Lewis’s struggles are common.

“We currently face cultural identity loss, poverty, food insecurities, drug and alcohol abuse,” said Robin Eagle, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony youth mentor for United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY), an Arizona-based nonprofit. “My greatest concern is the lack of educational influences.”

Daphne Hooper, director of Indigenous Community Relations at the University of Nevada, Reno, agrees. 

“You have some families who are like ‘Go. Go get educated, go do your thing.’ And you have other families that are stuck because there might be some trauma, there might be some challenges, and so it creates this conflict of, ‘Why are you going to leave? Why are you going to leave us?’”  

Lewis was paroled from his sentence in July 2009, and his term was discharged in July 2010. 

The justice system saw to it that Lewis served his time and was held accountable for his actions. Ultimately, that system tragically failed him. On Jan. 27, 2013, he was shot dead in the parking lot of a WalMart just a few hundred yards from his home. His killing has remained unsolved for almost 10 years.

There were witnesses to the killing. A sketch of a potential suspect was released by the local police.

The parking lot of the WalMart, built on tribal land, is equipped with surveillance cameras. Yet after almost a decade, the local and federal justice system (killings on tribal land are investigated by the FBI and Bureau of Indian Affairs, and prosecuted at the federal level) has been unable, or unwilling, to close the case or give public updates. 

The community still waits for answers, and many wonder if the killing of a young Native man with a criminal record doesn’t merit the full force and efforts of the justice system. 

“He has a criminal history, and he hadn’t succeeded much in their world, and so I don’t think they think it’s worth it,” said Taylor. “They didn’t care enough about it to resolve it, or to put more effort into it, or just communicate more.

“Because it was left unresolved, all of those frustrations and all of those concerns and issues that everybody has with the system [don’t] go anywhere either.” 

By late 2012, Trisha Taylor had cut off communication with Lewis. “I had kind of stopped talking to him because he had fallen into drugs.” 

A week or so before his death, Taylor saw Lewis on the street while she was driving near his mom’s house.

“He’d seen me and his face lit up. He smiled and I just looked away and kept driving…I felt really bad because I knew that he wanted to talk to me.”

Not long after Lewis’s death, Taylor spoke to his mother.

“I was struggling with the last interaction where I didn’t speak with him and he clearly wanted to talk to me,” she said. “She kind of knew what he wanted to talk to me about.” 

Lewis had signed up for a class to complete his GED and had excelled on a practice test. “He had made a remark to her that ‘I really wish that I could tell Trish ‘cause she’s been pushing me all this time to finish school and do something else.’” 

Lewis would never get that chance.

His story is a double tragedy – a justice system that held him to account has continued to fail him and his community.

Taylor said she feels that his unsolved case is part of a larger pattern for the FBI, and the prosecution of Natives in general. 

“It’s easier to prosecute this young Native man with a criminal history than it is to dig for his killer,” she said.

The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony is adjacent to Interstate 580 and close to downtown Reno,
Nevada. Image: Mark Maynard
The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony is adjacent to Interstate 580 and close to downtown Reno, Nevada. Image: Mark Maynard

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