HELENA – The family of Steven Bearcrane says they don’t believe all the questions about his 2005 death have been fully answered.
“We just want justice for him,” said Earline Bearcrane-Cole, Bearcrane’s mother.
Bearcrane, a member of the Crow tribe, was shot and killed by a co-worker at a ranch on the Crow reservation.
On Tuesday morning, his parents, daughter and other family members came to Helena for the latest hearing in their long-running federal lawsuit, claiming the FBI acted in a discriminatory way – treating his case differently than they would for a non-Native person.
“We felt that there were some questionable things in the investigation that we felt could have been handled differently,” said Bearcrane-Cole. “That’s where it started opening these little loopholes we were looking into.”
U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon presided over Tuesday’s hearing, on the FBI’s request to decide the case without holding a trial.
The lawsuit revolves around the FBI agent who investigated Bearcrane’s death. Patricia Bangert, a civil rights attorney who is representing Bearcrane’s family, alleged the agent had a stereotypical view of Native Americans, that he assumed Bearcrane was the aggressor, and that his investigation was merely confirming his preconception.
“That was how the case started, and the investigation proceeded to an inevitable conclusion when you start with a stereotype – that Steven Bearcrane was responsible for his own death,” Bangert said.
Bangert argued the agent’s investigative reports did not give enough weight to evidence that the shooting might not have been self-defense.
The FBI passed its findings in the case on to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Prosecutors submitted the case to a grand jury, and they declined to prosecute the man who shot Bearcrane.
Bearcrane’s family filed suit in 2009. The case has gone through U.S. district courts in Montana and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and many of the family’s initial claims have been rejected over the years.
The one remaining issue to be decided has to do with crime victim compensation.
Bearcrane’s family contacted the Montana Crime Victim Compensation Program about receiving help with funeral expenses. The program denied their claim, based on the finding that the shooting was self-defense and Bearcrane’s actions led to his own death.
Bangert argued that if the investigation was done in a discriminatory way, that created an unfair barrier to the family receiving benefits.
Attorneys for the U.S. Department of Justice are representing the FBI in the suit. They said any decisions made during the investigation were up to the agency’s discretion, and that the family could not point to any clear action the FBI should have taken that it failed to take.
DOJ attorney Kelly Heidrich said during the hearing that it should not be a court’s role to determine after the fact what investigative techniques an agent should have used.
“That is what they are trained to do, and these are decisions we give them the discretion to make,” she said.
Haddon did not make any immediate decision on the case during Tuesday’s hearing.
This hearing comes as families across Montana have continued to raise concerns about the investigations into missing and murdered indigenous people.
“Their stories are all the same,” Bearcrane-Cole said. “They want to see justice because they don’t think justice was served to them.”
Several dozen people from around the state were in attendance Tuesday, to show support of the Bearcrane family.
“It was just so overwhelming,” said Bearcrane-Cole. “We are so grateful that they came out and supported us.”
Bangert argued that Native people living on reservations do not have access to the same law enforcement services as other people do.
Regardless of what happens in this specific case, she said it’s important to make a statement about what she sees as an issue of fundamental fairness.
“It’s important that someone recognize that this is happening,” she said. “Until people recognize what’s happening on reservations to Native Americans, nothing’s going to change.”
Bearcrane-Cole said her family is not giving up.
“Our family – we lost a part of us, and that part is still missing,” she said. “It’ll never be the same. At least if we can get him some justice, it will maybe fill the part in a little, but that void will always be there.”
-Jonathon Ambarian reporting for MTN News