FORT DUCHESNE, Utah (ABC4) – It’s been almost 15 years since Todd Murray of the Ute Indian Tribe was shot on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation. Murray’s questionable death has been passed through the court system as his family has been fighting for the truth.
On Feb. 16, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that the failure of federal law enforcement officers to maintain evidence impacted the ability of the courts to determine how Murray died.
When the case went under investigation by the FBI, the family alleges that no autopsy was performed and also says the FBI allowed the gun that Murray allegedly had to be destroyed without first being examined for fingerprints or other forensic evidence.
The 21-year was fatally shot to death on April 1, 2007, after the car in which he was a passenger was pursued by Utah state, county, and local police officers more than 25 miles inside the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, where none of the state officers had law enforcement authority over tribal members.
After the Utah state officers stopped the vehicle and arrested the driver, the officers then began pursuing Mr. Murray on foot and in-state police vehicles. Shortly thereafter, Murray sustained a fatal bullet wound to the left side of his head, behind his left ear, a press release states.
Vance Norton, an off-duty Vernal City, Utah police officer admits that he pursued and fired multiple shots at Murray, but claims that Murray shot himself.
The Court of Appeals found that Debra Jones, Murray’s mother, “may have shown that Murray was in fact shot by Norton,” Court records state. Jones has been fighting for justice in his death ever since the death of her son.
Officer Norton maintains that Murray shot himself. The family of Murray has claimed that Murray was right-handed and that it was impossible for him to have shot himself as Norton alleged.
“On April 1, 2007, and at every step since then, state and federal officers failed to treat my son and my family with respect which should be due to any person, regardless of race or ethnicity. We are grateful that the Court of Appeals rejected again the FBI’s argument that it does not need to investigate the death of an Indian on his Reservation. Instead, the FBI was required to gather the evidence which would have shown what actually happened on April 1, 2007,” said Jones.
In court, the Jones family brought claims under the “bad men” provisions of the 1868 Treaty between the United States and Tribe.
In that Treaty, the United States agreed to compensate tribal members for damages caused by the wrongful actions by “bad men among the whites.” But, the fight for justice was slowed by the failure of federal law enforcement officials to maintain key evidence, the family says.
The Court of Appeals is now sending the case back to the Claims Court where the court may hold a trial in which Norton and other officers will have to testify under oath and attempt to explain how Murray died.
In addition, federal officers may have to testify about their failure to investigate the death of an Indian on the Reservation and their failure to collect and maintain the evidence needed to determine how Murray died, a press release states.
Under, the bad man clause, Murray’s family will be able to sue the United States for damages that have been caused by “bad white men” who have come onto the Reservation and caused damages to tribal members.