Nationwide protests over police brutality and racism in the U.S. justice system after the killings of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York have breathed new life into a case involving the police shooting of an unarmed Native American man in Utah.
Corey Kanosh, a 35-year-old member of the Kanosh band of the Paiute tribe, was killed during an incident in which it is unclear whether a crime was even committed. A policeman fatally shot Kanosh after a high-speed car chase on Oct. 15, 2012, in Millard County, about 150 miles south of Salt Lake City. His family says the officer shot Kanosh just seconds after arriving on the scene; law enforcement officials dispute that account, saying the shooting took place after a struggle.
An investigation by the sheriff's office in nearby Utah County found that Millard County Sheriff’s Deputy Dale Josse was justified in the shooting, reaching that conclusion a day after Kanosh’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit on Dec. 13, 2012.
Despite the decision, family members vowed to continue their lawsuit but say that they do not have enough funds to continue pursuing the case. “We have a good, strong case … but there’s a time limit for a wrongful death lawsuit,” said Marlena Kanosh, the victim's sister. “We’re still hopeful someone will hear the story and want to represent us.”
Kanosh was the grandson of a chief and was well known for his traditional Native American artwork. He was also a champion traditional dancer and a Paiute “Salt Song” singer who performed traditional songs for those who had passed away.
A little over two years ago, Kanosh and his friend Dana Harnes were driving in a car that belonged to Kanosh’s mother on back roads near the Kanosh Paiute Indian Reservation where he lived.
Marlena said she and her mother, Marlene Pikyavit, were worried because the two had been drinking, so the women called local police dispatch for help. Officer Michael Peacock was sent to their home, and Marlene said he agreed to help bring the men home. “We trusted him, hoping he would do the job," Marlena said. “But after he left the house, he called everyone else out saying he was looking for a stolen car.”
The Utah County investigation into the shooting said Pikyavit told Peacock that the men had taken the car "without permission," and a stolen vehicle report was immediately broadcast by dispatch. Millard County Deputy Josse, who knew Kanosh from previous incidents and was aware of his criminal record, was asked to help find the vehicle.
When Josse identified the vehicle and turned on his siren, Harnes, who was driving, sped off. high-speed chase ensued. “The officer gave chase behind them and they drove all the way through the reservation, back out of the reservation, and up a dirt road into the foothills,” Marlena said.
According to the Utah County investigation's report, Josse said Kanosh opened the passenger door and ran as Josse called for him to stop while unsuccessfully attempting to taser Kanosh. Josse said the chase took them about 200 yards from the car and estimated it lasted between one and two minutes. Kanosh then fell on his stomach, the report states, and Josse attempted to restrain him, again unsuccessfully. The deputy said Kanosh tried to fight him, and the confrontation lasted about one minute before the deputy began fearing for his life and killed Kanosh.
The investigation notes that Harnes contradicts the officers on the timing of the shooting, saying that the officer fired his weapon soon after arriving on the scene.
The Millard County Sheriff’s Department had no comment.
Marlena and her mother reject Josse's version of the story, and argue that law enforcement failed to preserve Kanosh's life by allegedly not allowing first responders to reach him for 45 minutes after he was shot.
“The cop and Corey had history,” Marlena said. “We believe the story is a cover-up."
The Kanosh family has until May to restart the suit and is now pushing to raise public awareness of the case, Marlena told Al Jazeera.