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Court reinstates Ute Tribe’s wrongful death suit in 2007 reservation shooting

First Published      Last Updated Jul 11 2017 02:08 pm

Federal appeals court says ‘bad men” provision of 1868 treaty may apply in 2007 shooting case.

A federal appeals court has ordered a lower court to reconsider a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation and parents of a man who died after exchanging gunfire with a Vernal police officer on the reservation in 2007.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit said in a decision published Jan. 27 that the U.S. Court of Federal Claims erred in its dismissal of the suit, in part, by limiting the scope of a provision in an 1868 treaty between the Ute Tribe and the United States.

The 150-year-old provision, known as the "bad men provision," says that cases where "bad men among the whites [or other non-Native Americans] ... commit any wrong upon the person or property of the Indians," are to be forwarded to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs so the offender can be "arrested and punished according to the laws of the United States." The treaty also includes a promise to reimburse the injured person for his or her loss.

The lawsuit stems from the death of 21-year-old tribe member Todd R. Murray in April 2007.

Murray was a passenger in a car that was speeding on Highway 40 in Uintah County. When a Utah Highway Patrol trooper attempted to stop it, the car went onto reservation land, where the driver and Murray split up and both fled on foot, court documents say.

Officers pursued Murray and one officer exchanged fire with him before — according to the officer — Murray turned the gun on himself. He was pronounced dead at a hospital from a gunshot wound in the head.

Vernal police Officer Vance Norton — now the Uintah County sheriff — who was the only witness to the fatal gunshot, said when he ordered Murray to get on the ground, Murray fired two rounds at him, and he responded by firing two shots back. None of the shots hit the intended target, and then, Norton said, Murray committed suicide, according to court documents.

Murray's mother, Debra Jones, says in the lawsuit that police — including officers from other jurisdictions, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the FBI, which took over the investigation — were part of a cover-up and that Norton shot her son execution-style.

However, justices in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2015 upheld a decision to dismiss another case filed by Jones, ruling that the evidence clearly showed Murray committed suicide and was not shot by the officer, as the lawsuit contended.

Jones' suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, citing the bad men provision, questioned whether the law enforcement officers should even have been on the reservation land.

She also claimed police further mishandled the case when they "desecrated" Murray's body at a mortuary off the reservation and failed to thoroughly test Murray's handgun to verify Norton's story. The gun was destroyed by the FBI after a judge in another case ordered it forfeited to the government.

"But for the destruction of the cited evidence, Jones may have shown that Murray was, in fact, shot by Norton," the appellate decision states.

The federal claims court tossed the suit, saying that some of Jones' claims — such as the alleged omissions of action, like failing to render aid to Murray for at least 30 minutes, as well as acts that occurred outside the reservation — did not apply to the bad men provision.

But if federal officers had in fact mishandled evidence, Jones' assertion that the case violates the bad men provision would be valid, the appellate decision states.


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