DENVER (AP) — Prosecutors won't file criminal charges against six Denver sheriff's deputies in the death of a black, homeless jail inmate who suffocated while being restrained during a psychotic episode, District Attorney Mitch Morrissey said Thursday, prompting demands from the man's family for a federal investigation.
The deputies used necessary force and were not trying to hurt Michael Marshall, 50, when they restrained him in a prone position for several minutes after he became aggressive toward another inmate and ignored commands, Morrissey said. Marshall choked on his own vomit during the Nov. 11 encounter and died of "complications of positional asphyxia," according to a medical examiner who ruled the death a homicide.
The case adds to the list of problems for a troubled agency trying to reform after a series of misconduct and excessive force allegations. It also comes at a time of increased public scrutiny over the deaths of black men at the hands of law enforcement nationwide.
Darold Killmer, an attorney representing Marshall's family, called the decision not to prosecute "an outrage" and implored the Justice Department to investigate Denver's police and sheriff's departments.
"Sadly this is an example of how difficult it is for society as a whole, including deputies in a jail, to handle the complex issues presented by those suffering from severe mental illness," Morrissey wrote in a statement explaining his decision. The deputies were not violent toward Marshall and even tried to help him by performing CPR, Morrissey wrote.
"It's important to note that there were no punches, kicks, strikes of any kind, or any impact force used to control Mr. Marshall," he said.
Marshall, who was 5-foot-4 and 112 pounds, had a history of drug abuse and schizophrenia, choosing to live on the streets rather than with family. He was jailed Nov. 7 on suspicion of trespassing and disturbing the peace at a motel where he had been staying.
Officials on Thursday gave relatives video footage of the encounter after supporters went on hunger strike to demand its release.
"Watching that tape, they clearly murdered him," Marshall's brother, Rodney Marshall, said. "It's obvious."
A copy of the footage provided to The Associated Press by Killmer shows Marshall pacing in a mostly empty hallway, a deputy picking him up and placing him on a bench. He and other deputies immediately slide him off the bench and onto the floor on his stomach. For most of the rest of the video Marshall is mostly obscured from view by deputies hovering over him. When least four deputies pick him up by his shoulder and legs about 13 minutes later, he can be seen wearing a spit mask. The video continues, but Marshall is out of view.
Relatives questioned whether city officials had given them all of the footage.
The encounter began when deputies saw Marshall behaving aggressively toward another inmate, according to Morrissey's account, though the video shows no other inmates.
Morrissey said the only force deputies used was to prevent him from getting up. One pressed his knee on the back of Marshall's thigh; another put his knee above his buttocks to control him. They put pressure on his shoulders, controlled his head and put nunchunks on his ankles. Even after he was handcuffed he continued to struggle, growling and showing his teeth, according to Morrissey's statement.
"The deputies described Mr. Marshall as surprisingly strong," Morrissey said, noting that they told him to calm down.
Morrissey said Marshall struggled on the floor for more than two minutes before he "went limp" and the deputies rolled him over. Nurses who checked on him said he was still "squirming" against the deputies and grunting like he was catching his breath. Marshall vomited before deputies put him in a "restraint chair" with a hood over his face to protect them from his spit. Marshall's heart stopped and he went unresponsive while in the chair.
Paramedics took him to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with brain injuries due to lack of oxygen, respiratory failure and other problems. Heart disease and emphysema and agitation from the psychotic episode also contributed to his death, a doctor who worked on his autopsy told investigators.
Marshall's family took him off life support nine days later.
The case comes a year after a federal jury awarded a record $4.65 million to the family of a homeless street preacher who died in the Denver jail in 2010. Deputies shocked him with a stun gun while he was handcuffed, put him in a sleeper hold and lay on top of him, apparently in an effort to control him. The ensuing $6 million payout to Marvin Booker's family was among the largest in Denver's history.
The sheriff's department will now conduct its own review of Marshall's death to determine if deputies violated policy or procedure.
Associated Press writer Dan Elliott contributed to this report.