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SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge has ruled that a Ute tribal member was not murdered by a police officer, as attorneys for his family have claimed, but died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Judge Tena Campbell, in a ruling and order handed down Friday, said the family of Todd Rory Murray offered "speculation rather than evidence" to support their claim that Vernal police detective Vance Norton killed their son.
"The plaintiffs’ evidence is sparse, circumstantial, subject to more than one interpretation and at times very speculative," Campbell wrote. "Moreover, evidence to the contrary is strong and is consistent with a self-inflicted gunshot wound."
The judge's opinion was part of a 71-page ruling that found Norton and a dozen other law enforcement officers with the Utah Highway Patrol, state Division of Wildlife Resources and Uintah County Sheriff's Office did not violate Murray's civil rights. The ruling also dismissed claims against Norton of assault and wrongful death.
Attorneys for the family claimed police lacked jurisdiction to pursue Murray, an enrolled member of the Ute Indian Tribe, onto the Uintah and Ouray Reservation on April 1, 2007. The family's $6 million lawsuit alleged that the pursuit, in spite of the lack of jurisdiction, led to multiple violations of Murray's civil rights.
Murray was a passenger in a car driven by a 17-year-old boy who was speeding on U.S. 40, according to UHP. A chase reached speeds of 125 mph before the driver crashed into a small ravine about 7 miles south of the reservation town of Ouray. After crashing the car, the teen and Murray fled in opposite directions.
The trooper was able to track down the driver and arrest him without incident. Norton and two other officers arrived at the scene a short time later and began a search for Murray.
During an evidentiary hearing in June, Norton testified that he spotted Murray, who fired a handgun at him from about 100 yards away. Norton, who was off-duty and not in uniform on the day of the incident, testified that he returned fire while seeking cover. He did not hit Murray, who then shot himself in the head with a .380-caliber pistol, according to police.
The state medical examiner ruled Murray's death a suicide. An autopsy report showed he was "acutely intoxicated and had recently used methamphetamine" at the time of his death. There was also a $20,000 warrant for his arrest on pending drug charges.
Attorneys for the family raised claims that officers allowed racism to cloud their actions that day. They pointed out that a sheriff's deputy handcuffed a fatally wounded Murray, and noted that officers did not provide any medical aid during the 30 minutes it took for an ambulance to reach the remote area where the chase had ended.
Campbell, however, wrote that appellate courts have "refused to find that the due process clause establishes an affirmative duty on police officers to provide medical care — even something as basic as CPR — in any and all circumstances."
"None of the officers’ actions were egregious or conscience shocking," the judge wrote. "Their attempt to apprehend Mr. Murray while protecting themselves — and the means they used to do so — were expected police behavior in light of the circumstances."
Campbell also dismissed a claim by one of the family's attorneys that the officers were "hunting themselves an Indian."
"It was completely reasonable to apprehend the fleeing suspect so they could fully investigate and turn him over to the proper authorities, if necessary," the judge wrote. "There is no evidence that the officers were acting like a posse to capture the 'Indian,' as plaintiffs have argued."
The judge added that it is unrealistic to require officers to know whether an individual is an enrolled tribal member, and therefore subject to federal or tribal law in some cases, based solely on a person's physical appearance.
"All of the plaintiffs’ claims of egregious behavior stem from their complaint that the actions took place on the reservation and were aimed at an enrolled member of the tribe," Campbell wrote. "The officers did not know, could not have known, and did not have the duty at that point to ascertain whether Mr. Murray was an enrolled member of the tribe."
Jesse Trentadue, who represented Norton and several other officers in the case, said he was "very happy" with Campbell's ruling.
"The officers and their families have been through a lot," he said. "It's been very unsettling for them. And to be accused of intentionally murdering someone? That goes beyond outrageous."
Trentadue also expressed sympathy though for Murray's family.
"This can't have been pleasant for them either," he said.
Attorneys for Fredericks, Peebles & Morgan, the Colorado law firm that represented Murray's family, did not return calls seeking comment Friday.