A federal jury on Tuesday awarded a record $4.65 million to the family of a homeless street preacher who died during a struggle with deputies in Denver's downtown jail while trying to retrieve his shoes.
The verdict came about three months after the city agreed to pay $3.25 million to another former inmate who was choked by a jail deputy and scalded by inmates. And it came one month after a jury awarded nearly $2 million to a family targeted in a mistaken police raid.
Marvin Booker, 56, died on July 9, 2010. Four deputies and a sergeant shocked him with a Taser, put him in a "sleeper hold" and lay on top of him in an effort to control him during booking.
The all-white, seven-member jury began deliberations on Friday. Opening arguments in the case began on Sept. 22.
"We're obviously disappointed in the verdict," Denver City Attorney Scott Martinez said in a written statement. "Nonetheless, we thank the jurors for their effort and respect the legal process. The city remains committed to its ongoing efforts to improve the Denver Sheriff's Department."
City officials said they have not yet decided whether to appeal the judgment. In addition to the jury awards and settlements, the city has been embarrassed this year by a string of excessive-force cases that helped lead to the resignation of Sheriff Gary Wilson.
"I think the Colorado community is finally saying enough is enough," Booker family attorney Mari Newman said. "It seems like the police can't police themselves. If law enforcement doesn't do something then the community has to step in. I definitely think this is a wake-up call for the city of Denver."
Newman said Denver never entertained the possibility of a settlement during the four-year legal battle. The jury award included punitive damages, funeral costs and the loss of enjoyment of life. The award did not include any money for Booker's future earning power, but it did order the city to pay the Booker family's attorney fees — expected to exceed $1 million.
"His life was validated by the public. The jury did not use his situation against him. They heard all the facts and then were able to see through the smear campaign that the city put up. This is about a man who simply wanted his shoes," said the Rev. Terrence Hughes, vice president of the Greater Denver Ministerial Alliance. "It's a little breath-taking. It means so much." Several people sobbed outside the courtroom after hearing the verdict.
Booker's brothers were in tears. "Marvin was a good man," said his brother, the Rev. Spencer Booker. "He was an urban minister. He didn't deserve what those deputies gave him that night [...] putting excruciating pain on his body." He also said: "The jury spoke very, very, very clear that they used excessive force against my brother, a 135-pound man who had his own health issues." Spencer Booker said the deputies involved should be fired and indicted. Four of the five deputies still work for the sheriff's department.
"We are extremely gratified with the jury's decision," Booker family attorney Darold Killmer said. "This verdict should reverberate across the country. This is a signal that the people of Denver aren't going to put up with it anymore." Killmer had urged the jury to award a total of $15 million to send a message to Denver officials that change is needed. "There is no question the jury made this strong statement," he said. The lawsuit argued that he died as a result of excessive force, but city officials blamed Booker's actions and his poor health as a result of drug abuse. "None of us would be here right now if Mr. Booker had followed the rules," Thomas Rice, attorney for the city of Denver, told jurors during closing arguments. He said Booker's death occurred because of severe underlying medical ailments. The city of Denver's attorneys stipulated that the city was liable for the actions of its deputies.
Because of that, Denver accepted responsibility for compensatory damages, Newman said. The strategy meant plaintiffs were not allowed to present evidence of other excessive-force complaints. The City Council must decide whether to pay punitive damages charged to individual plaintiffs, she said. The jury brought the biggest punitive award against Sgt. Carrie Rodriguez at $2 million. Another $1.15 million each was assessed against James Grimes, who used a carotid choke hold on Booker, and Faun Gomez, who initiated physical contact with the inmate.
"This was never about money," said Calvin Booker, Marvin's brother. "This was always about justice for my brother." He added: "They taught me in this court that to stop resisting means to be dead." "We finally got justice for Marvin," said Anna E. Bond, Marvin's sister. The jury's award could lead to one of the largest payouts in a lawsuit in Denver's history. Earlier this summer, the city paid a record $3.25 million to settle a lawsuit with former inmate Jamal Hunter. Before that, the largest settlement had been $3 million paid to the family of former inmate Emily Rice, who died in jail after being involved in a serious, alcohol-related car crash. She died of her injuries after deputies failed to make necessary rounds and did not notice her deteriorating condition. Denver Health Medical Center also agreed to pay an additional $4 million to Rice's family. An August analysis by The Denver Post found the city had paid nearly $13 million over the past decade to settle legal claims against the Denver police and sheriff's departments.