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Yellowbear loses lawsuit over using sweatlodge in prison

Jun 14, 2012 - By Martin Reed, Staff Writer

He was moved to the Wyoming Medium Security Prison in Torrington in January.

A federal judge has ruled against convicted baby-killer Andrew John Yellowbear Jr.'s alleged constitutional violations over permission to use a sweatlodge in prison.

In his 35-page ruling Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson dismissed the claims in Yellowbear's civil rights lawsuit and sided with Wyoming Department of Corrections director Robert Lampert and Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution warden Steve Hargett.

Yellowbear is serving a life sentence after a jury convicted him in 2006 of brutally murdering his 22-month-old daughter, Marcela Hope Yellowbear. The child died July 2, 2004, after weeks of torture in a Riverton apartment.

The Northern Arapaho tribal member filed the lawsuit Nov. 7 after prison leaders said they could not allow him to participate in a sweatlodge at the Torrington institution.

In his ruling, Johnson said the prison officials did not violate Yellowbear's civil rights.

"Plaintiff has failed to provide any factual evidence which tends to negate the reasons offered for denial of his use of the general population sweat lodge, or the denial of a separate sweat lodge for PC (protective custody) inmates," the judge wrote.

"While both denials may well be a substantial burden on his sincerely held religious beliefs, the same are justified as the least restrictive means of furthering the compelling government interest of safety and order at" the prison, Johnson stated.

Yellowbear inquired about the sweatlodge activities after transferring from the Rawlins institution to the Torrington prison's segregation and protective custody unit in January 2011.

On at least five occasions prison officials addressed Yellowbear's concerns about his use of the sweatlodge, which the institution leaders denied to protective custody inmates because of potential harm from other inmates in general population.

Other religions offered weekly and sometimes daily services for the segregation unit inmates, and Yellowbear claimed "blatant disparities" existed between the ceremonies offered and his traditional American Indian practice, according to his lawsuit.

Prison officials told Yellowbear they could not allow the protective custody inmates to use the sweatlodge in general population, and constructing one in an area he requested would be a fire regulation violation, according to the lawsuit.

"Plaintiff, through his complaint and subsequent pleadings, has failed to provide any evidence to sustain a finding he was 'treated differently from others,' or any of the acts alleged in his complaint were 'motivated by a discriminatory purpose,'" according to Johnson's ruling.

"He, in fact, acknowledges a 'talking circle' is offered to him as well as other American Indians. He has, however, chosen to refrain from participating, stating the ceremony ... is 'in no way a traditional, sincere, or meaningful way in which to observe the Northern Arapaho or any aspects of the American Indian religion in general,'" according to the decision.

Johnson noted that Eastern Shoshone tribal member Willie LeClair has conducted the talking circles as the Department of Corrections' Native American spiritual adviser since 1998.

Yellowbear's "personal dissatisfaction with the religious services provided to Native Americans in the protective custody unit at WMCI does not translate in a violation of Equal Protection" Clause under the 14th Amendment, the judge ruled.

The clause "commands that no State shall 'deny to any person within its jurisdiction equal protection of the laws,' which is essentially a direction that all persons similarly situated should be treated alike," according to the ruling.

Yellowbear is continuing to determine ways to appeal his conviction on the grounds that his crime took place in Riverton within the exterior boundaries of the Wind River Indian Reservation, which should be considered Indian Country jurisdiction.

His multiple appeal efforts have met failure by the U.S. District Court for Wyoming, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver and a rejection by the U.S. Supreme Court to consider his case.

Yellowbear's girlfriend at the time of the murder, Macalia Blackburn, is serving 60 years in prison related to the toddler's death.

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