Lakota People's Law Project
On Sunday, April 14, a 32-year old Lakota man named Clarence Leading Fighter was shot twice and killed by a Rushville, Nebraska sheriff’s deputy in the doorway of a Catholic Church. Now, an eye witness has disputed police accounts of the shooting, saying that Leading Fighter was already incapacitated when he was shot.
Donald American Horse saw the entire interaction, which followed an altercation between his sister and Leading Fighter. “[Clarence] opened that door to that church and they hit him with that taser,” said American Horse. “He fell in towards that door, he was kind of halfway in and halfway out. About the time he hit the floor that cop pulled his gun, pointed towards the ground, and pop pop. That was it. They didn’t even give him a chance.”
Activist groups including the American Indian Movement (AIM), Native Lives Matter, the Lakota People's Law Project, and the Indigenous Peoples Movement have taken up the cause of the slain man who was a father to a seven-year-old boy.
“Once again, a Native person has been murdered by police and hardly anyone is talking about it,” said Chase Iron Eyes, an attorney for the Lakota People’s Law Project. “It’s an epidemic of injustice. We Native Americans continually suffer the highest rates of violence at the hands of police, and it just needs to stop.”
Iron Eyes also heads up the Native Lives Matter group, which publishes reports and uses an eponymous hashtag to try to spread awareness of police brutality toward Native Americans. The Lakota People’s Law Project has released a video with testimony from American Horse and others. The group is also asking attorneys in the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division for a federal investigation.
President Julian Bear Runner of the Oglala Sioux Tribe also expressed his nation's support, and the American Indian Movement scheduled a pair of events this past weekend in the wake of Leading Fighter’s killing. On Saturday at 7 p.m. MST, an informational gathering session was held at Billy Mills Hall on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. A Mother’s Day March for Justice for Clarence Leading Fighter was also scheduled on Sunday, May 12. A caravan left for Rushville from Billy Mills Hall at 11 a.m. MST.
Here is the text of the full letter from the Lakota People’s Law Project to the DOJ:
We hope that, as co-chair of the Indian Working Group for the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, you will find the following information worthy of further investigation.
On April 14, a 32-year old Lakota man named Clarence Leading Fighter (hereafter Mr. LF) was shot twice and killed by a Rushville, Nebraska sheriff’s deputy in the doorway of a Catholic Church.
A Nebraska State Patrol press release on Apr. 14 states that an initial investigation by police indicated the sheriff’s deputy who fired his gun was justified in using deadly force. But we have interviewed an eyewitness to the shooting, Donald American Horse (Mr. AH), who describes the police as having tased Mr. LF, causing him to fall to the ground, before shooting him.
Police were pursuing Mr. LF following a domestic dispute. The state patrol press release, referring to that dispute, asserts that “authorities found a victim with a broken arm.” But the alleged victim, Deb American Horse (Ms. AH), told us she informed police that she injured her arm days prior. Indeed, the arm was in a sling when the officers arrived.
Our investigation also reveals that local reporting mischaracterized events leading to the shooting: “Deputies found Leading Fighter at the church, and a deputy shot him a few minutes later.” This implies that Mr. LF was already inside the church posing a possible threat to parishioners when he died. But according to Mr. AH, Mr. LF attempted to enter the church while fleeing from police and was apprehended and shot in the doorway without ever having physically interacted with parishioners.
During the Mass that was occurring when Mr. LF was shot, according to Father Joseph K Joseph of Immaculate Conception Church, parishioners could hear someone in the front of the church calling for help just prior to shots being fired. This suggests that, rather than intending to attack anyone inside, Mr. LF was seeking safety. Nevertheless, Lieutenant Brian Eads with the Nebraska State Patrol stated publicly that Mr. LF was “showing signs of threatening behavior,” and the initial investigation conducted by law enforcement claims that the officer who used his weapon was trying to “protect himself and the parishioners from potential serious harm.”
None of the news reports indicate that Mr. LF was armed when shot, and Jeff Brewer, the Sheridan County Sheriff, explained to us that law enforcement searched the church lawn after the shooting, presumably looking for something. It is true, according to our interviews, that Mr. LF fled the scene of the initial altercation with two box cutters — but it appears he never brandished them as weapons in the presence of police.
Nebraska State Patrol is now conducting an investigation of the incident, and there is a grand jury being convened. We hope these actions will lead to a just outcome. But our research tells us that Rushville, NE is a place where intolerance of Native Americans is common and often not adequately addressed. To provide perspective on the differing treatment of Native people and whites in Rushville by authorities, we were told by Ms. AH that, near in time to Mr. LF’s death, a Caucasian man aggressively brandished a knife inside the police station but was apprehended without physical harm.
We believe that, if left to local authorities, there is a significant threat that justice will not be served for Clarence Leading Fighter, and we respectfully request that you conduct a federal investigation. We have produced a video using our interviews, and we also have Donald American Horse’s written statement to police, which has not been made public.
In case it is useful, Ms. AH told us she believes the first name of the officer who shot Mr. LF is Everett.
The Lakota People’s Law Project