Jury hands down historic ruling in Denver deadly excessive-force trial
A federal jury has delivered what may be the costliest verdict yet in a Denver excessive force case.
The $4.6 million jury award to Marvin Booker’s family came after jurors found five Denver sheriff deputies excessively restrained and subdued homeless street preacher Marvin Booker, failed to try to save his life and acted with “evil motive” or intent when he died in July 2010 on the floor of the city jail booking room.
“The truth has finally been spoken and now our brother and father can rest in peace,” said Calvin Booker, a pastor in the Booker family’s hometown of Memphis. “The jury spoke loud and clear about what’s sick in the sheriffs department and sick in the city. It’s corruption, plain and simple. It’s corruption that needs to be cleaned up from the top down.”
Members of the family and their attorney Darold Killmer spoke on the meaning of the ruling outside the courthouse in Denver today, celebrating the wheels of justice that turned at last for Marvin Booker, demanding change in the culture of violence and obfuscation that threads through city authority and lauding the Denver community for not erupting in anger. They referenced the tumult that has gripped Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of the recent police shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown.
Tuesday’s verdict put an exclamation point on what civil rights activists and leaders of metro Denver’s African American community long have said: that Denver killed the wrong man.
Not that anyone – especially at 135 pounds and posing hardly a threat to sheriffs deputies – deserves to be tackled and piled on by burly officers, choked in a carotid hold and Tasered to death at the city jail.
But because Marvin Booker was both a homeless street preacher and member of a nationally prominent family of pastors, the city’s dogged defense of his death triggered heightened levels of outrage.
The frail 56-year-old who died in July 2010 under deputies’ restraint wasn’t the menacing, good-for-nothing bum the city has described in defending itself against an excessive force lawsuit filed by the Booker family. What’s more, Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration’s no-holds-barred legal crusade to justify Booker’s death isn’t what some African American community leaders expected of the city’s second black mayor, a man who is deeply rooted in the faith community.
The three-week trial ended with the forceful federal jury decision today.
The city had a lot to lose. Booker’s family asked for more than $15 million in damages. And some of Denver’s top safety officials — under fire for a rash of excessive force cases since Booker’s death — have made statements under oath that stand to further erode the city’s credibility.
Some community leaders even before Tuesday’s verdict said the damage had already been done to a mayor who has stayed silent about Booker’s death for far too long.
“The city didn’t know who they were dealing with when they killed Marvin Booker, and there’s a lot of backlash against the mayor for the way he has handled it,” said the Rev. Patrick Demmer, who ministers at Denver’s Graham Memorial Community Church.
“I can see only two reasons for this case to have dragged on like this,” added the Rev. Terrence Hughes, a pastor at New Covenant Christian Church/ Alpha Omega Ministries. “One is an assumption that a homeless guy, a drug user, didn’t matter – that nobody cared about him and his life had no value. The other is a concern over the city’s legal liability. Either way, the mayor’s silence about the Booker incident speaks volumes about how he feels about people who are disenfranchised in this city, the homeless, people who can’t contribute to a campaign.
“There comes a point, even in politics, where common human decency should break through. But the mayor for a long time now has taken a position not to stand up for what’s right.”
Hancock’s office has declined comment on the case since he took office in July 2011.
All the Facts and a Fair Resolution
Booker — arrested on an outstanding warrant for drug possession — had taken off his shoes in the booking area of Denver’s jail and was heading to retrieve them when a deputy grabbed him for ignoring her directions. Other deputies joined in and wrestled him to the ground. They restrained him until he went unconscious. He died soon afterward.
The incident happened during John Hickenlooper’s second term as mayor. Hickenlooper — while noting that he was “not in any way accepting guilt or implying guilt” — held a joint press conference with Booker’s family. “We will do everything we can to get all the facts and arrive at a fair resolution,” Hickenlooper said.
Immediately after Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey decided not to file charges against the deputies involved, Hickenlooper promised to help Booker’s family arrange a long-awaited viewing of the videotapes.
By the time Hancock took office a year after Booker’s death, the civil lawsuit was five months under way. Hancock stayed mum about the legal predicament he inherited from a predecessor who managed, albeit carefully, to show compassion for Booker’s family. Rather than settling the case early on, Hancock’s administration was determined to go to trial, even after the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals handed down a scathing decision in March. The appeals court judges debunked the city’s version of events, saying that “Mr. Booker did not resist during the vast majority of the encounter,” “that a reasonable jury could find excessive zeal behind the use of force on Mr. Booker,” and that, even when he had no pulse and his body went limp, deputies were negligent in ignoring signs that he was dying.
A Family of Pastors
In dozens of legal filings and testimonies by taxpayer-funded defense witnesses, Hancock’s administration has depicted Booker as a crazy vagrant, a wayward junkie whose life should apparently be measured by the fact that he was a “frequent flier” – or semi-regular – at the city jail.
Booker was in fact a crack user and homeless. But the city glossed over other parts of his history that have prompted some of Denver’s most respected faith leaders to sit day after day, week after week in U.S. District Judge R. Brooke Jackson’s courtroom monitoring the trial.
Booker’s is a family of widely respected southern pastors who, with ties to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., are deeply rooted in the civil rights movement. Booker was 14 when King was gunned down in Memphis, Booker’s hometown. The assassination came as a personal blow. His response was to keep King’s memory alive by memorizing his speeches and, over time, mimicking the cadence and tenor of King’s voice. Booker spent much of his youth and early adulthood reciting King’s speeches at churches and civil rights events throughout the South. His brothers, like their father, became pastors of large congregations. But Booker took a decidedly different path – preaching, and living, on the streets. It’s the way Jesus did it, he explained to the large, supportive family who did what they could to give him a home, help him kick his drug habit and earn a steady paycheck. But Booker wanted none of it. No address. No pulpit. So he spent years on the streets, where he felt the message of the gospels were needed most.
City witnesses were right that Booker – who had a long string of arrests for, among other things, collecting money for his King speeches outside the Lorraine Motel, site of the assassination in Memphis – didn’t have high regard for law enforcement. They were correct in their accounts that he struggled against the deputy who grabbed him for defying her order. And a doctor — paid $750 dollars an hour by the city to discredit the coroner’s report classifying Booker’s death as a homicide — was truthful in testifying that Booker had a weak heart.
What’s also true is that, for many watchdogging the case, the city’s defense of Booker’s killing has reflected poorly on Hancock’s own heart — on his administration’s sense of humanity and on the integrity of its commitment to, as the mayor has put it, “rebuild confidence” and “advance a culture of accountability” in the safety department.
The Rev. Demmer, a longtime civil rights activist, had a younger brother who was a friend and classmate of the future mayor at Denver’s Manual High School.
“I watched Michael grow up,” he said. “As much as I’ve been in his corner — or wanted to be in his corner — I’m disappointed. The buck stops with him, the mayor, and I’m disappointed any way I look at this.”
Three Sides of Marvin Booker
There are three distinct ways of looking at Marvin Booker.
One is the way the city has a depicted him in court — as a law-breaking, cop-hating drifter who was irresponsible, addicted and un-rooted.
Another view is as a man of deep faith, albeit with an unconventional way of preaching it.
“Whether you’re a church preacher or a street preacher, he was sharing the gospels. That makes him one of our own. He was one of our brothers,” Hughes said.
“He may not have been the most formal kind or orthodox preacher, but that doesn’t diminish his work,” Demmer added.
Booker can also been seen through another lens – that of his two brothers who are prominent pastors in the South and of the respected members of Colorado’s spiritual community with whom he became close during his years in Denver. Booker was a protégé and close friend of Rev. Dr. James Peters, the longtime pastor and now pastor emeritus of Denver’s New Hope Baptist Church. Peters was at a founding meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and worked directly with Dr. King. He was the first plaintiffs’ witness to testify at Booker’s trial.
Considering the Mayor
Peters, Demmer and Hughes are members of the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance – a network of black pastors who long have championed social justice issues and decried excessive force and other law enforcement misconduct. There have been tensions in the alliance about how to balance outrage about Booker’s death and solidarity with his family with an inclination to protect Hancock, at least publicly. Peters – who was the Alliance’s longtime spokesman – is loyal to the mayor, his parishioner whom he appointed as a deacon at New Hope.
Peters and several members of the Alliance have held back criticism of the city.
“There have been differences in the alliance about how vocal we should have been about the case,” said Hughes, adding that Hancock’s skin color and ties to their community don’t excuse his administration’s steadfast defense of Booker’s killing.
“I’m not saying (Hancock) should settle this case because he was a Baptist deacon and part of the fabric of our faith community. I’m saying I don’t understand why he has taken such a harsh stance on this case. Why would he want to tear down this man’s personality or smear his character to this extent?” Demmer said.
“If we cannot speak out against wrong and against injustice when the person who’s perpetrating it – the person in the seat of power — is black, then we’re hypocrites and color-blind.”
For as many bad facts defense lawyers tried to underscore about Booker at trial, there were far more disturbing revelations about sheriffs deputies’ use of excessive force. And about jail officials milling around after, failing to try to save Booker’s life. And about several apparent attempts to cover up the facts.
Videotapes of the incident shot from several different angles were played dozens of times in slow, excruciating motion during the three-week trial. What they show were deputies piling on and forcefully restraining Booker after they wrestled him to the floor and handcuffed him. What they also show is Booker being Tasered while he was not moving.
Faun Gomez, one of the key deputies involved, acknowledged her record of having a “use-of-force” incident nearly weekly in the jail, and that the sheriffs department had disciplined her for lying about prior excessive force.
Sgt. Carrie Rodriguez admitted handing over the wrong Taser for police analysis – misplacing key evidence that may have been the tool of Booker’s death.
Deputy James Grimes deleted text messages to other of the four deputies involved in the incident.
And it wasn’t until the trial began in September – three years and seven months after the lawsuit was filed – that the city turned over 15 CDs of discovery evidence, according to a motion filed by Booker family attorney Mari Newman.
Revelations about the city’s hard-nosed defense of the Booker case call into question Hancock’s commitment to reforming Denver’s law enforcement. The same month Hancock held a news conference about “raising the bar of accountability” and opening “a new chapter” in the sheriffs department, his white-shoe lawyers were rewriting a painful old chapter by scripting a legal strategy to downplay deputies’ misconduct and stomp on Booker’s memory. Just as Hancock has refused comment about Booker, he stayed silent earlier this year as videotapes were exposed showing a long and continuing string of excessive force cases in the department. Even as the controversy flared in July, he spent only 26 seconds in his 34-minute state of the city speech addressing the problem topic.
“I’m also well aware of how a few bad actors reflect on the entire force. Make no mistake about it, we are holding police officers and sheriff deputies accountable. We have and we will address the few who would tarnish the badge that hundreds of others wear proudly as they serve and protect the people of this great city.”
When Hancock ran to lead the city, he did so on a promise to “always fight for justice and fairness and give voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless.” When he swore in as Denver’s 45h mayor, he introduced two members of the Little Rock Nine who broke the color barrier in a segregated, 1950s Arkansas school.
That’s all well and good, says Pastor Hughes. “But when it comes to civil rights issues right here and right now, the mayor’s office has been an echo chamber.”
The gaggle of metro Denver pastors who’ve spent the past three weeks sitting in on the Booker trial were on alert this morning, prepared to text each other as soon as jurors reached a verdict. They rushed to the courthouse not just to support their fellow pastors in Booker’s family, but also to disprove the administration’s stone-cold narrative that nobody cared about the homeless guy who just wanted to put on his shoes.
Note: This story was being updated from post-time this morning to reflect the jury’s 11:23 a.m. verdict.
[ Photo by Dennis Lynch of Marvin Booker taken near Beale Street in Memphis, where Marvin used to recite Martin Luther King, Jr., speeches. ]
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