Judge, Not Jury, To Consider FBI Handling Of Crow Man's Death

Aug 8, 2019

A federal lawsuit about how the FBI handled a Crow man’s murder will be tried by a judge, not jury.

U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon denied Steven Bearcrane’s family’s request for a jury trial Thursday. He said he’d do one of two things—dismiss the case as the government has requested or hold a bench trial to settle disputed facts.

Earline Cole walked away from the Helena courtroom seeing a silver lining in the decision.

“I am taking it as a win because we are moving forward,” Earline said over the phone, on her way back to Billings from Helena. “It was not dismissed.”

Earline Cole, Bearcrane's mother, flips through the files she's accumulated throughout the decade-long lawsuit.
Credit Shane Thomas McMillan / University of Montana School of Journalism’s Native News Project

Over a decade ago, Cole and her husband Cletus filed a case against the Federal Bureau of Investigations, and others, on behalf or their son, Steven Bearcrane.

Bearcrane, a Crow Tribal member, was shot and killed by a white man on the Crow reservation 14 years ago.

The FBI determined he was killed in an act of self-defense, but his family maintains he was murdered. In courtrooms across the country—from the Ninth U.S. Circuit Appeals Court in Seattle to the U.S. Supreme Court—the Cole family has argued that their son’s death was mishandled because of racism towards Native Americans.

But Cole said for ten years, she hasn’t been able to address those claims.

“The government keeps bringing up all these little technicalities,” Cole said. “What happened to the murder of our son?”

Cletus Cole holds a picture of Steven Bearcrane-Cole and his daughter Precious. She was three when the lawsuit began and is now a senior in high school.
Credit Shane Thomas McMillan / University of Montana School of Journalism’s Native News Project

Bearcrane’s family is arguing that they’re entitled to victim's benefits because the FBI misclassified the shooting.

Judge Haddon said he will schedule a pre-trial conference, where both parties will meet to discuss things like the scope of the trial.

The FBI did not respond to requests for comment made by phone and email on time for broadcast.

Olivia Reingold is Yellowstone Public Radio’s Report for America corps member.