RAPID CITY, S.D. - Nearly a year to the day that Albert J. Six Feathers Jr. was killed by a law enforcement officer in Fall River County, a civil action lawsuit was filed on behalf of his estate in federal district court here.
Six Feathers was fatally shot at the end of a high-speed chase from Newcastle, Wyo., that finished near Edgemont, S.D., while he was surrounded by county sheriff's deputies and state law enforcement officials. A coroner's inquiry shortly after the incident determined that Edgemont Police Chief Brett Jarman was not held responsible for Six Feathers' death.
"It is the most egregious act of civil rights violations I've seen," said Charles Abourezk, attorney for the estate. Robin Zephier is also listed as an attorney of record.
"I was outraged by the excessive response and killing of Albert Six Feathers," Abourezk said.
He said at the time of the incident he was made aware of it through the news media, but he said he knew there was more to the story than what was reported. "Law enforcement controlled the story for weeks."
The lawsuit filed on behalf of the Six Feathers estate asked in preliminary filings for a more than $2.5 million settlement, but Abourezk said that would be up to a jury. He said there were children who would grow up without a father and it was only fair to them to file this lawsuit.
In addition to the benefits for the estate, Abourezk said he hoped to prove that finally in the year 2000 an American Indian's life in South Dakota has more meaning than it used to.
"For years Indian people wound up dead in alleys and trash cans and people looked the other way. But public investigations fail to burn into the conscious of South Dakotans that violence against Native Americans is wrong and that it carries with it consequences as strong as to non-Indians.
"And, that law enforcement officials who crossed the line will be held accountable," he said. "We intend to right one of the worst wrongs imaginable."
Six Feathers was killed following a 90-minute, high-speed chase that began in Newcastle where he was followed by city police officer Robert Fazendin, who determined Six Feathers was driving in an erratic manner.
Six Feathers drove south on Wyoming Highway 35 to Mule Creek Junction then east to Edgemont. Fall River County officers and Jarman picked up the chase at Edgemont. The chase at times exceeded 100 miles per hour.
Six Feathers eluded road blocks and finally was surrounded in a pasture south of Edgemont were he rammed Fall River County Sheriff Jeffrey Terrell's car.
Jarman, who was riding with Terrell, jumped from the vehicle and fired four shots from a shotgun, three of which hit Six Feathers.
Jarman told the coroner's inquest he was certain Terrell's life was at risk. Jarman told the jury he set a predetermined line which he would not allow Six Feathers to cross. When he did, Jarman fired two rounds above the steering column. The three shots that hit the vehicle were at windshield level, which indicated no attempt was made to shoot out tires to stop the vehicle.
Gary C. Mann of the Rapid City Police Department testified before the coroner's jury that road spikes and shooting the tires rarely stop a vehicle. However, according to newspaper accounts, near the same time, high-speed chases that ended in Sturgis, Sioux Falls and Brookings were stopped with spikes that blew the tires.
"He was not armed and was never given the benefit of tire spikes or a tire shot," Abourezk said.
The lawsuit contends the state, the city of Edgemont and Fall River County failed to properly train and supervise Jarman, which amounts to a disregard for the constitutional rights of the citizens, and Jarman. His need for training, the complaint states, "was so obvious that defendants can reasonably be said to have been deliberately indifferent to the constitutional rights of Albert James Six Feathers."
The lack of training, proper supervision and discipline led to the death of Six Feathers, the complaint argues, and continues to add that his death was the result of reckless, willful and wanton conduct by the defendants.
Because there were no criminal actions taken against any of the defendants, the family took the step to file the civil action.
"There are civil rights statutes in place when all else fails to provide some remedy," Abourezk said. He added that his hope was that this case would bring awareness about the civil and human rights of American Indians in South Dakota.
"We can make this change, one case at a time. I hope Indian people benefit from this lawsuit. I'm more concerned about the four kids that will grow up without a father," he said. "By all accounts he was a good father and on a path to doing good."
Zephier said he had good knowledge that Jarman transferred personal property into his wife's name after the incident. He said it is a crime to transfer property to avoid payment for damages as the result of legal action.
Part of the complaint alludes to the transfer of personal property and with reasonable belief that tangible and intangible evidence and materials were intentionally, negligently or willfully destroyed.
Damages are asked for funeral expenses, grief and loss of companionship for parents, siblings and his common-law spouse and the children; loss of wages and future support and punitive damages. No trial date has been set, but could come within six months.
Sybil Hernandez, Six Feathers' mother, is administrator of his estate and is the lead plaintiff in the case.
"Whatever crime he committed prior to the chase was only a misdemeanor, and we have no capital punishment in South Dakota for a misdemeanor. He did not deserve to die in the brutal manner he did," Abourezk said.