Jones v. United States

Decision Date08 July 2020
Docket NumberNo. 13-227L,13-227L
PartiesDEBRA JONES and ARDEN C. POST individually and as the natural parents of Todd R. Murray; DEBRA JONES as personal representative of the Estate of Todd R. Murray, deceased, for and on behalf of the heirs of Todd R. Murray; and the UTE INDIAN TRIBE OF THE UINTAH AND OURAY RESERVATION, Plaintiffs, v. UNITED STATES, Defendant.
CourtU.S. Claims Court


Keywords: Summary Judgment, Sufficiency of Evidence, Issue Preclusion, "Bad Men" Provision

Jeffrey S. Rasmussen, Patterson Earnhart Real Bird & Wilson LLP, Louisville, Colorado, for the plaintiffs.

Kristofor R. Swanson with Terry Petrie, Natural Resources Section, Environment & Natural Resources Division, U.S. Department of Justice, for the defendant. Christopher R. Donovan, Office of the General Counsel, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and James W. Porter, Office of the Solicitor, U.S. Department of the Interior, of counsel.



Todd Murray, a member of the Ute Indian Tribe, died of a close-contact gunshot wound after he and the driver of the car in which he rode were pursued by state and local police officers acting without law-enforcement jurisdiction on the tribe's reservation in northeastern Utah. One of the pursuing officers reported seeing Mr. Murray shoot himself while the officer stood about 100 yards from Mr. Murray. Another officer standing farther away saw significant distance between the first officer and Mr. Murray shortly before seeing Mr. Murray fall to the ground. A state medical examiner found Mr. Murray's head wound consistent with suicide.

Mr. Murray's parents brought both a district-court civil rights action against the state and local officers and this case, a treaty claim against the United States. In both actions, Mr. Murray's parents have argued that the officers murdered Mr. Murray and conspired to destroy any evidence that the plaintiffs could have offered to prove the alleged homicide. In both actions, the plaintiffs have attributed a lack of conclusive evidence to the success of officers' and federal agents' alleged cover-up. The plaintiffs have, therefore, sought to prove their allegations by obtaining an evidentiary inference or default judgment against the local officers or the United States as a sanction for the respective defendants' alleged spoliation of evidence.

In the civil-rights action, the district court found that the officers' and state medical examiner's testimony supporting suicide were uncontroverted because the plaintiffs offered only speculation, not evidence, and the state and local officers could not be sanctioned for spoliating evidence in a federal investigation. The district court found insufficient evidence for a reasonable fact-finder to conclude that Mr. Murray's death was not a suicide. The district court considered the officers' liability for other parts of the pursuit and their conduct after the shooting but granted summary judgment for the officers and their employing municipalities on all claims.

This Court found the plaintiffs' treaty claims non-cognizable or precluded by the district court's decision. The Federal Circuit reversed and remanded the case for this Court to reconsider, after first considering whether sanctions for the federal agents' alleged spoliation of evidence might affect the preclusive effect of the district court's decision.

On remand, the case was transferred to this judge, and the Court found no intentional cover-up involving federal agents. This Court found, however, that federal agents negligently spoliated the alleged suicide weapon that investigators had found near the spot where Mr. Murray was shot. As a sanction, this Court prohibited the defendant from relying on the gun or on any inferences favorable to the defendant that could be drawn from it.

With the spoliation issue resolved, the defendant has moved for summary judgment under Rule 56 of the Rules of the Court of Federal Claims ("RCFC"). The Court finds that the Utah district court's decision precludes the plaintiffs from proving facts essential to their treaty claims. Moreover, some of the plaintiffs' claims are not cognizable under the treaty's "bad men" provision, or are inadequately supported by evidence to conclude that crimes had been committed against Mr. Murray, a predicate to recovery under the treaty's "bad men" provision. Accordingly, the defendant's motion for summary judgment is granted.


The apparent facts of Mr. Murray's death are described in the district court's decision granting summary judgment for the local authorities. Jones v. Norton, 3 F. Supp. 3d 1170 (D. Utah 2014) [hereinafter Jones D. Ct. Merits], aff'd, 809 F.3d 564 (10th Cir. 2015) [hereinafter Jones 10th Cir.]. Those facts, as they relate to the United States, are summarized in this Court's earlier opinion dismissing this case and the Federal Circuit opinion reversing that dismissal, see Jones v. United States, 122 Fed. Cl. 490 (2015) [hereinafter Jones Fed. Cl. Dismissal], vacated and remanded, 846 F.3d 1343 (Fed. Cir. 2017) [hereinafter Jones Fed. Cir.], and in this Court's opinion granting-in-part and denying-in-part the plaintiffs' motion for spoliation sanctions, 146 Fed. Cl. 726 (2020) [hereinafter Jones Fed. Cl. Spoliation].

The Court draws its recitation of the facts from these previous opinions, the parties' Joint Stipulations Regarding Spoliation (ECF 77), the transcript of the district court's evidentiary hearing on spoliation (ECF 77-1), and the Supplemental Joint Appendix of documents from the district court litigation (ECF 127).1 The parties also agreed to submit as evidence the depositions of their respective experts (ECF 144). The Court references the plaintiffs' allegations from the Amended Complaint (ECF 17) for contextual facts that are not covered by the Stipulations or undisputed elements of the testimony before the district court.

A. On-Reservation Events: Pursuit, Gunshot Wound, and Handcuffing

On April 1, 2007, a Utah state trooper radioed the state Central Police Dispatch advising that he was pursuing a car containing "two tribal males" for a speeding violation. (ECF 17 ¶ 21.) Mr. Murray was the passenger in the vehicle being pursued. (ECF 77 ¶ 5.) The vehicle eventually stopped within the boundaries of the Ute reservation, where Mr. Murray and the driver exited and stood on either side of the vehicle. (ECF 17 ¶ 26.) The trooper approached the driver and Mr. Murray, ordering them to the ground multiple times. (Id. ¶ 26.) Mr. Murray and the driver ran off in opposite directions. (Id. ¶ 26.) The trooper pursued and apprehended the driver. (Id.)

As the trooper returned to his patrol car with the handcuffed driver, off-duty Vernal City police officer Larry "Vance" Norton arrived on the scene wearing plain clothes and driving his personal car. (Id. ¶ 27.) The trooper asked Officer Norton to pursue Mr. Murray. (Id.). Another state trooper and a county deputy arrived next and joined the search for Mr. Murray. (Id. ¶ 29.) The parties stipulated that none of the state, county, or municipal officers involved could lawfully exercise authority over Mr. Murray on the Ute reservation. (See ECF 77 ¶¶ 8-10.)

Officer Norton testified that, after a foot chase, Mr. Murray fired at Officer Norton. (Id. ¶ 21). Officer Norton testified that he then fired two shots back at Mr. Murray with a .40-caliber handgun before retreating while watching Mr. Murray over his shoulder. (Id. ¶¶ 21-22, as clarified by ECF 152 at 2.) Officer Norton testified that "Mr. Murray put a gun to his head as Officer Norton shouted at Mr. Murray to put it down, that Mr. Murray then pulled the trigger, and . . . collapsed." (ECF 77 ¶ 23.) Officer Norton was the only witness to the gunshot that killed Mr. Murray. (See ECF 77-1 at 251.)

After Mr. Murray was shot, while he was still alive, the deputy, Anthoney Byron, handcuffed him. (ECF 17 ¶ 33; ECF 139 at 4.) The plaintiffs allege that, half an hour after Mr.Murray was reported shot, an ambulance arrived and took Mr. Murray—who was still alive—to a hospital, where he was declared dead shortly after arriving. (ECF 17 ¶¶ 39, 41.)

B. Off-Reservation Events: Hospital, Mortuary, and Medical Examiner's Office

At the hospital, the plaintiffs allege, state, county, and municipal officers removed Mr. Murray's clothes, unnecessarily photographed and manipulated his unclothed remains, and photographed one officer "sticking a finger into Murray's head wound." (Id. ¶ 42.) U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs ("BIA") Officer Kevin Myore was allegedly also present at the hospital. (Id.)

State, county, and municipal officers then transported Mr. Murray's body to a mortuary to store it overnight until it could be transported to the state medical examiner's office the next day. (Id. ¶ 43.) At the mortuary, the plaintiffs allege, the officers drew two vials of blood from Mr. Murray's body by inserting a needle into Mr. Murray's heart and asking a mortuary employee to make an incision in Mr. Murray's neck. The plaintiffs allege that Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI") Agent Rex Ashdown arrived at the mortuary and was "informed that a sample of Mr. Murray's blood had been drawn earlier at the [hospital]," but did nothing to stop the officers from drawing more blood. (Id. ¶ 44.)

The next day, Mr. Murray's body was moved to the state medical examiner's office in a body bag. (ECF 17 ¶ 48; see ECF 77-1 at 54.) The medical examiner reported that Mr. Murray's remains arrived with hands bagged. (ECF 17 ¶ 52.) He found no soot on either hand. (Id.) Mr. Murray's left hand was "clean and free of any debris or blood." (Id.) Mr. Murray's right hand was "caked in blood." (Id.)

The FBI requested that the medical examiner perform an autopsy. (ECF 77 ¶ 43.) The state medical examiner performed an external examination of Mr. Murray but did not conduct an autopsy. (Id. ¶ 44.)

C. Federal Investigation

The FBI had jurisdiction to investigate Mr. Murray's death on the...

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