Prison sentence for Alaska Native grave disturber
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After his earlier guilty plea was set aside by a federal appeals court, an Alaska man on Wednesday was sentenced to three months in prison for admitting to taking a skull from an Alaska Native gravesite.

U.S. District Judge James M. Fitzgerald ordered Ian Martin Lynch to pay $7,356 in restitution for a misdemeanor violation of the Archaeological Resource Protection Act (ARPA) of 1979. Lynch, 27, must also serve one year of supervised released, Fitzgerald ordered.

Although prosecutors said the conviction was Alaska's first under ARPA, it highlights a significant problem faced when trying to protect Native remains and artifacts. To be convicted, the government must show a person knew he or she was harming an archaeological resource.

In the case of Lynch, he admitted taking the skull of a 1,400-year-old Alaska Native child from a site on Hecata Island, a currently uninhabited island in southeast Alaska. The site was a Tlingit village last used in the 1920s, according to a report conducted for the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

After two years of investigation, Lynch who calls himself an "Indiana Jones type" and a "treasure hunter," pleaded guilty in 1999 to violating the law. At the time of his sentencing, he told Fitzgerald: "I thought I found a fantastic historical find" and the skull was repatriated to the Klawock Tribe for reburial.

But when Lynch claimed he was unaware of the area's significance, the guilty plea was set aside by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last December. Citing the legislative history of ARPA, the court said it was only intended to root out commercial thievery and not a "casual visitor" like Lynch.

"For a felony conviction, the prosecution should have to prove that a person charged under ARPA knew, or at least had reason to know, that the object taken is an 'archeological resource," the court wrote.

"Picking up a skull is not in every case," a violation of ARPA, the court continued.

ARPA imposes fines of up to $20,000 and two years in prison for taking archaeological resources. But like cases involving the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), getting a conviction can be time consuming and costly.

"Investigations take a while because the ARPA and NAGPRA laws are fairly complex on a legal standard basis," said Phil Young, a former National Park Service official in New Mexico who worked on Native repatriation cases. "For both of those statutes, there's certainly elements that have to be met so that operations are drawn out. They are not cheap."

"You really can't do it quickly," he added, noting that some undercover investigations have required sums of more than $1 million.

Prosecutors going after violations of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act have run into related problems. Due to the standard of proof required, convictions involving fake Native goods have been few and eagle protection laws are currently being challenged in the 10th Circuit.

Get Lynch's Case:
US v. LYNCH, No 99-30325 (9th Cir. December 07, 2000)

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