Chief exonerated 150 years too late

A Washington state “retrial” found Chief Joseph Leschi of the Nisqually tribe innocent of murder charges, clearing Leschi’s name some 150 years after his execution. Leschi was railroaded and hanged in 1858 for allegedly killing a white man.

A Washington Historical Court of Justice, set up after the state Legislature passed a resolution urging action to “right a gross injustice,” held a formal hearing at Tacoma’s Washington State Historical Museum, Dec. 10. Seven judges from the state’s courts and a tribal judge heard testimony from four lawyers and 11 expert witnesses.

In 1855, Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens sought to consign the Nisqually to a small, unproductive parcel of land. He set up a militia to remove the tribe from the land, the Nisqually’s home for thousands of years. Leschi objected and wanted to negotiate. But Stevens didn’t. The Puget Sound Indian War of 1855-57 ensued. Leschi was unjustly accused of killing a Col. Moses. The first trial ended with a hung jury. In 1857, at the second trial, he was convicted and sentenced to hang. Leschi maintained his innocence.

Leschi’s execution was the “last humiliation” and “the finishing blow in the subjugation of Indian tribes in the Puget Sound,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

The court’s unanimous decision to exonerate Leschi is not a legal ruling, but will have historical consequences, Superior Court Judge Daniel Berschauer told the Seattle Times.

Cynthia Iyall, a descendent of Leschi’s sister, initiated the Committee to Exonerate Chief Leschi and worked to get the new trial. “So many generations of Nisqually people have had to live with this,” Iyall said. “For the older people, it was hard to even talk about. You could see the pain in their faces. You could see the anger.”

With the exoneration, it is time for the world to know Leschi means “warrior, leader, hero, innocent,” Nisqually tribal chairman Dorian Sanchez said.