DENVER (AP) — A federal jury on Tuesday found five Denver sheriff's deputies used excessive force against a homeless street preacher who died in the city's downtown jail and awarded his family a record $4.65 million in damages, a verdict an attorney said should send a message to law enforcement everywhere.
Marvin Booker died in 2010 after deputies shocked him with a Taser while he was handcuffed, put him in a sleeper hold and lay on top of him, apparently in an effort to control him. His family's attorneys said that was a zealous overreaction to the 56-year-old, who was frail and suffered a heart condition. The city had argued the deputies' actions were in line with the department's policies for subduing a combative inmate.
"He didn't deserve what these five sheriffs did to him that night," his brother, Spencer Booker, said, fighting tears after the verdict. "The jury spoke very, very, very clearly that they used excessive force against my brother. Your actions call for consequences."
The three-week civil trial came amid calls for a federal investigation of the department over other high-profile abuse cases that prompted the sheriff's department to make sweeping reforms. Former Sheriff Gary Wilson resigned in July as the city agreed to pay $3.3 million to settle another federal jail-abuse lawsuit by a former inmate over a beating. It had been the largest payout in city history to settle a civil rights case.
The all-white, seven-member jury began deliberating Friday and delivered its verdict just before noon Tuesday.
"The community won't tolerate this anymore, and things have to change," Booker family attorney Darold Killmer said. "This verdict should reverberate around the country. This is a sign that people are not going to put up with it anymore."
City Attorney Scott Martinez said the city was disappointed, but thanked the jurors for their work. "The city remains committed to its ongoing efforts to improve the Denver Sheriff's Department," Martinez said in a statement.
Booker's family filed the federal lawsuit against the city and county of Denver as well as deputies Faun Gomez, James Grimes, Kyle Sharp and Kenneth Robinette and Sgt. Carrie Rodriguez. In a rare move on the eve of the trial, the city accepted liability for the actions of the deputies, meaning it is responsible for damages.
Inmates told investigators that the struggle began when he was ordered to sit down in the jail's booking area but instead moved to collect his shoes, which he had taken off for comfort.
Booker, who was arrested on an outstanding warrant for drug possession, was cursing and refusing to follow orders, according to the deputies' account. He was restrained by deputies who got on top of him, placed him in a sleeper hold, handcuffed him and shocked him with a stun gun.
During the trial, Booker's attorneys told jurors deputies stunned him for too long and should have backed down when Booker said he was struggling to breathe. Killmer described a "dogpile" of deputies.
"Mr. Booker was essentially doing a pushup with all those deputies on his back," he said, adding that the department then tried to "whitewash" the incident with a shoddy investigation. Among other mistakes, Killmer said the deputy who stunned Booker submitted the wrong Taser for analysis and questioned whether the right one was ever found.
Denver's medical examiner said Booker died of cardiorespiratory arrest during restraint, and ruled his death a homicide. The report listed other factors in his death, including emphysema, an enlarged heart and recent cocaine use.
A lawyer representing the city of Denver, Thomas Rice, said Booker's heart problems caused his death, and a healthier inmate would have survived the encounter.
The deputies "hadn't the slightest notion that Mr. Booker had a heart condition," Rice told jurors. "The bad heart was the trigger."
Prosecutors declined to charge the deputies. Sheriff's department officials never disciplined them, saying it was reasonable for the deputies to believe he could harm someone and that force was necessary to restrain him.
Four of the five deputies remain on the force. Booker's relatives said they should be stripped of their jobs.
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