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Judge rejects most of suit claiming anti-Indian bias

Judge rejects most of suit claiming anti-Indian bias

  • Updated

A federal judge in Billings has dismissed most of the claims in a lawsuit filed against federal officials by relatives of deceased Crow tribal members, saying they did not have standing to bring the suit. The relatives alleged racial discrimination in investigating and prosecuting deaths of American Indian victims.

In an order filed June 17, Chief U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull adopted the findings and recommendations of Magistrate Judge Carolyn Ostby, who presided in the case.

The plaintiffs, Earline and Cletus Cole and Veronica Springfield, alleged that there was a practice of not adequately investigating and prosecuting cases in which the victims are American Indian. The Coles and Springfield claimed federal officials violated their Fifth Amendment rights to equal protection and due process.

The Coles and Springfield named as defendants the FBI’s Billings office and agents Eric Barnhart, Ernest Weyand and Matt Oravec; the U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Dakota; Marty J. Jackley, the former U.S. attorney; and Maura Kohn, an assistant prosecutor.

Ostby recommended dismissing all of the claims alleged by Cole and Springfield except for one claim against Oravec.

Cebull agreed that the Coles and Springfield lacked standing to assert rights as individuals because they did not allege they had been the subject of discriminatory law enforcement. The link between injuries alleged by the plaintiffs and the alleged misconduct of the government employees was too weak to meet requirements for bringing a case, he said.

The court, however, held that the plaintiffs had standing to assert an equal-protection claim against Oravec and did not dismiss that claim.

Cebull agreed with Ostby that factual allegations “create an inference’’ that Oravec was “motivated by racial animus when conducting his investigation into the deaths of Steven Bearcrane and Robert Springfield.”

The plaintiffs alleged that Oravec had been heard to say that female American Indian victims of sexual assault “were asking for assault or words to that effect.” And, they claimed, Oravec tried to hinder crime investigations and that when the Coles visited the FBI offices to ask about the investigation into their son’s death, he attempted to intimidate Cletus Cole by taking him out of camera range and showing him his gun.

“The circumstances of Bearcrane’s death — that it was ruled a homicide, that a non-Indian did the shooting, that the investigation was allegedly insufficient due to Oravec’s discriminatory motives — allow the Court to infer at this early stage of the proceedings that a claim is plausible,” Ostby said.

Similar claims against Oravec in Robert Springfield’s death are more sparse, Ostby said. “The Court recognizes that law enforcement agencies frequently must make difficult decisions about where to allocate limited resources, and that there may be alternative explanations for Oravec’s decision,” she said.

Officials with the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Dakota said they could not comment on the case.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Patricia Bangert, a civil-rights lawyer in Denver, said she disagrees with the order and will appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The major issue, Bangert said, was whether the Coles and Springfield had standing to bring the case. The judges said they did not because they hadn’t suffered a real injury, she said.

“That’s offensive. They have suffered a real injury. They are crime victims,” she said. And crime victims have rights under the law, she said.

The Coles’ son, Steven Bearcrane-Cole, 23, died Feb. 2, 2005, in a shooting on a ranch on the Crow Reservation during a fight with Bobby Gene Holcomb. The South Dakota U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute Holcomb based on information from a federal investigation. The case was transferred to the South Dakota prosecutor to avoid a possible conflict of interest because an employee in the Montana U.S. Attorney’s Office was related to Bearcrane-Cole.

Springfield’s husband, Robert “Bugsy’’ Springfield, 48, who lived in Casper, Wyo., died on a bowhunting trip in the Bighorn Mountains after disappearing on Sept. 19, 2004. Searches by law enforcement and relatives failed to find him until hunters came across his remains in October 2005 in the Big Hole area of the Crow Reservation.

Springfield’s family waited about two years before the FBI released Springfield’s remains for burial in November 2007. The FBI had sent the remains to its lab in Virginia for identification through DNA testing.

The suit alleged that Springfield died under suspicious circumstances and that the FBI failed to investigate his disappearance.

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