Cherie Lash-Rhoades murdered four people and critically injured two others in a 2014 shooting spree in the tribal headquarters of the Cedarville Rancheria, a small American Indian tribe in Northern California. It all happened during a meeting at the Alturas headquarters where tribal leaders were discussing the banishment of Lash-Rhoades. Lash-Rhoades was tried in Modoc County, California, and sentenced to death by Judge Candace Beason on Feb. 20, 2014, for killing her brother Rurik Davis, 50, her niece Angel Penn, 19, her nephew Glenn Calonicco, 30 and Sheila Russo, 47, the tribal administrator who handled tribal evictions.
Lash-Rhoades is awaiting execution at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowville, California, where there are 21 women awaiting execution. But Lash-Rhoades and the other women are among the nearly 750 inmates who have been sentenced to death in California, and California has not executed any inmates since 1992. The status of the death penalty in the state is complicated by a series of voter propositions affirming it, while Gov. Gavin Newsome has imposed a moratorium on executions.
Lash-Rhoades was chairman of the small tribe, a tribe embroiled in a leadership dispute involving her own family, which led to an accusation that she had stolen more than $60,000 in tribal funds. Those allegations led to an eviction, and Lash-Rhoades came to the tribal headquarters where a hearing about the eviction was scheduled. Instead of a hearing, what followed was a harrowing murder spree.
Her conviction will be appealed to the California Supreme Court—an automatic appeal under California law. If her case is like other capital litigation, it is likely the appeal will languish for decades. California’s death row is the largest in the United States and likely the largest in the Western hemisphere.
The Cedarville Rancheria rampage killing should be viewed in the context of a disturbing move, largely on the West Coast of the U.S., where tribes are disenrolling thousands of their citizens. I wrote about the crisis in a friend of the court brief with the United States Supreme Court in the case of Aguayo v. Jewell where I explored the profound psychological impact tribal disenrollment has on native self-esteem. In that brief, I wrote: “Disenrollment thus perpetuates historical trauma by creating a loss of community, culture, tradition and identity that is associated with historical loss. Historic loss has been strongly associated with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and poly-drug use in Native youth.”
Disenrollment is thorny legal and political matter that poses civil rights squarely against the imperatives of native sovereignty. My colleagues Gabriel Galanda and Ryan Dreveskratch wrote a groundbreaking and expansive law review article on the subject in the Arizona Law Review: “Curing the Tribal Disenrollment Epidemic, in Search of a Remedy.”
Mass shootings on American Indian reservations are exceedingly uncommon. In light of the death penalty political turbulence in California, and its reluctance to execute anyone, is it possible it will ever execute a woman killer who is an indigenous Native American?