Notes on religion, skepticism, leaps of faith
What’s a life worth, Mr. Mayor Michael Hancock? By your latest legal maneuvering, it’s apparently “0.” I don’t think so.
Given the news that your administration is trying to cut the jury award in the Marvin Booker civil case by more than two-thirds, it pains me to see that you continue refusing to take responsibility for your rogue sherrifs deputies. Your decision to seek a radical reduction in the amount awarded to the Booker family blatantly disrespects the federal jury’s decision.
I watched your gang of lawyers pick the jurors who would hear the federal civil rights trial about the killing of a black, homeless, sickly and drug-using street preacher at the hands of deputies at Denver’s jail.
Your legal team seemed pleased with the jury when it chose an all-white, middle class group of Coloradans to decide the case. You all seemed confident – cocky, in fact – about your chances coming out on top in trying to defend a killing that wasn’t defensible.
But after that same jury sat through three weeks of painful, contradictory testimony, it came to its own conclusion. Your attorneys got shellacked by the Booker family’s lawyers who not only proved there was blood on your deputies’ hands but also pointed out apparent corruption among sheriffs officials who covered up key evidence – including having given police homicide investigators the wrong Taser rather than the one used on Marvin Booker. If a civilian killed someone or covered up evidence about a killing in this manner, he or she would have been criminally charged. None of the uniformed officers involved in Marvin Booker’s homicide was prosecuted. Instead, justice was meted out in a civil trial in which the jury decided your city owes the Booker family $4.6 million. Rather than accepting that decision, you’re seeking a bargain-basement award.
Denver has settled several use-of-force cases out of court. There’s one glaring difference between the Booker case and some of those cases – including those of Jamal Hunter and Emily Rice, which settled for $3.5 million for $3 million, respectively. That difference is homelessness. Marvin Booker didn’t have a fixed address. With your attempt to slash the jury award in his case, it’s clear your administration has deemed his life to have been less valuable than the others.
Apparently homeless people don’t really count in the city you’re running. After all, it was your City Council that criminalized homelessness under your first term. You say you care about the citizens of Denver. And, as an ordained Baptist deacon, you’re supposed to have a greater duty to God to be compassionate and fair to his people. Continuing to drag out proceedings in Marvin Booker’s case while his aged, Ill mother enters a fifth year awaiting final justice for her son shows no compassion, fairness or responsibility. None.
Mr. Mayor, let this community and the Booker family heal. Pay for the failings of your sheriffs department. Face the fact that what the city did to Marvin Booker was a savage atrocity. Own it. Get it done with. And let’s move forward.
Terrence H. (“Pastor Big T”) Hughes
New Covenant Christian Church
Alpha and Omega Ministries
”One is too many!”
Edit note: Marvin Booker came from a family of ministers and was supported in Denver by several black clergy members, many of whom were his friends.
[ Top photo: Marvin Booker. ]
This past Monday, members of the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance and the Latino Faith Initiative met with Denver officials to discuss misconduct among members of the city’s Sheriff’s Department. In particular, we addressed the incident involving a Denver deputy who viciously brutalized an inmate inside a Denver courtroom. The prisoner — who was shackled and cuffed — was slammed into a wall and hurled a racial slur by the officer, Brady Lovingier.
Lovingier is white. The inmate, Anthony Waller, is black.
The city’s position on the videotaped attack has been and continues to be “our hands are tied” by the “matrix” – the legal framework used to mete out discipline in misconduct cases. The officer’s punishment for committing this Jim Crow/Apartheid type brutality was a 30-day suspension. As Mayor Michael Hancock’s deputy safety manager told us, the 30-day suspension was significant and came as a sizable penalty for officer Lovingier.
I found that response unbelievable and insensitive when you consider the level of violence used by Lovingier in his unprovoked beating. I have no doubt that the inmate was “concussed” in the attack. I imagine he also suffered the psychological effects of being abused and brutalized so randomly and viciously. I wonder if Mr. Waller thought Deputy Lovingier’s punishment matched his pain.
We were told repeatedly by the city attorney and safety administrators that no one is really responsible. No real accountability was expressed by anyone in city government. We were told it is not expedient for the city to admit to wrongdoing, given the litigation typically sought by officers appealing their suspensions. The city attorney was present and protective. He was there to make sure no one overstepped his or her verbal and legal bounds. The “bottom line,” we were told by Mayor Hancock and his staff, was that the city could not and did not want to put itself or its deputies and officers in a vulnerable position legally and, I assume, financially by commenting on the attack.
We made it clear that our bottom line was people, not dollars.
In 2010, the city was similarly unaccountable after the death of Marvin Booker. Booker died at the hands of sheriff’s deputies at the city jail, but we were told in numerous reports that the officers used proper procedures and protocol. The question was asked, “How could that be if Marvin was murdered?” City officials, including Mayor Hancock, didn’t answer.
Now we learn that a man was brutalized in a Denver courtroom and, as in the Booker case, no criminal charges were filed against the offending deputy. Regardless of what we can see with our own eyes on the videotape, the implication is that no significant violations occurred — nothing that would warrant criminal charges or stiffer internal punishment. Remember, as Hancock and his staff told us Monday, the 30-day suspension was sufficient.
We called Monday’s meeting looking for solutions to misconduct in the sheriff’s department. What we heard instead was a lot of talk about the city’s lengthy disciplinary “matrix” and an offer to have it explained to us. The underlying message, as I saw it, was this: “If you only understood the matrix, you would have a better understanding of why black inmates are abused by officers who have no regard for human life or punitive repercussions around their actions.” There was little or no discussion about changing the matrix to account for human rights violations in the city.
Personally, I don’t need a primer about the “matrix.” I understand it all to well! The matrix protects deputies, but puts the public in a very vulnerable position, especially those who find themselves in the custody of city safety officials. Denver, though a city, has become a “police state.” We have no one — and I repeat — no one “policing” the police. Denver’s disciplinary policies are weak, holding little accountability for officers who break the rules. The one safety net built into the system should be the office of the independent monitor, which was set up to watchdog city safety officials. But in practice, that office shows little true independence, but rather mirrors the administration’s lack of commitment to ending misconduct.
Police brutality may not touch us all. The majority of us will never see the inside of the Denver Justice Center. But that shouldn’t stop any of us from caring about those who will, and are, incarcerated in this “state-of-the-art” facility. Citizens in Denver ought to be outraged by the uncontrolled and unjust behavior of some officers who are sworn to serve and protect our city. Denverites ought to know about the lack of accountability are from an administration that was elected and hired to pay more attention.
Bereft father says Catholic Health has got to ‘make their bottom line’
CANON CITY— Jeremy Stodghill isn’t the kind of Christian who believes the Gospels map an earthly alternative to life’s hard knocks.
It’s not just that he has worked as a prison guard for most of his career and has no illusions about the quality of human justice.
It’s more that, listening to him talk about his six-year legal battle against the Catholic organization that runs the hospital where his wife and unborn twins died, you get the impression Stodghill has been schooled in gospels of a different kind – ones rooted in the realities of big business and the frustrations of corporate litigation.
“I understand they got to make their bottom line. Medicine’s not free… They’re in the business of making money. I don’t begrudge them that,” Stodghill says of the doctors at St. Thomas More Hospital and their bosses at Catholic Health Initiatives, the Englewood-based non-profit that describes itself as the third-largest health-care provider in the nation.
Stodghill lives here with his daughter, Libby — who was two when her mom and twin brothers died in 2006 — and with his mother-in-law, Susan, who picks Libby up from school most days because Stodghill doesn’t finish his prison shift until 10 p.m. He declared bankruptcy a few years ago as the bills tied to the case mounted. He worked a deal with the bank to avoid foreclosure.
Stodgill tries to understand the arguments hospital lawyers have made. He prints out the documents sent to him from the case, sits in a chair at home and reads them. His book of briefs is now two-and-a-half inches thick, far fatter than the phone book in his canyonlands community. He said the defense arguments it contains – including that his twin boys, who were seven months in the womb, don’t qualify as people — defy common sense and what he knows to be true. Still, he figures that what he thinks he is owed is of little consequence in a world where the giant wheels of corporate health care spin.
As The Colorado Independent first reported Wednesday, Stodghill filed the wrongful death suit against Catholic Health because he believed his twins would have been saved by an emergency C-section that was never undertaken. Catholic Health’s attorneys mounted a defense centered on the argument that, according to Colorado law, the fetuses were not people with legal rights because they never made it out of the womb.
So far, two Colorado judges have been convinced by Catholic Health’s defense. Others – including thousands of online readers who have commented on the case and tens of thousands more who have spread Stodghill’s story throughout the web – decry the hypocrisy of that argument, which they say flies in the face of church doctrine. Health-care directives authored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops instruct Catholic caregivers to “witness the sanctity of human life from the moment of conception until death” and always to “defend the unborn.”
In the wake of news that Catholic Health has been shielding itself for years with a legal strategy that contravenes Church teachings, Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila, Colorado Springs Bishop Michael Sheridan and Pueblo Bishop Fernando Isern vowed this week to review the arguments in the case to see if Catholic Health has been acting with “fidelity and faithful witness” to Church doctrine.
Stodghill is unimpressed. He said, if he could speak to the bishops directly, he’d “probably bite [his] tongue and simply tell them ‘Just do your investigation and see what [the hospital and the lawyers] did.’”
Stodghill speaks with the same deference about the doctors and lawyers involved in his case. He struggles against the urge to criticize them as experts and authority figures. Hierarchy, established rules and expertise seem to mean a lot to Stodghill. His job with the Colorado Department of Corrections is structured largely by chains of command, training and the politics of power.
So Stodghill is baffled by the conversation he had with his wife’s obstetrician, Dr. Pelham Staples, on the night she died. Staples was not in the hospital at the time.
“I got pulled out [of the emergency room] and was handed a phone to talk to [him] about removing the boys. My response was ‘I’m not a doctor. I’m not trained for this.’ You know? My training consists of slapping on a bandage, through my work, basic first aid. Not a C-section. That’s not what I’m trained for.
“What do you wanna do?” he says, recalling Staples’ life-altering question. Stodghill throws his hands up. “I’m not a– !” he stops short and leans back onto the table and shakes his head. “I’m not a doctor.”
He wishes the lawyers would just tell it straight. That’s how he said he talks to Libby about the deaths of her mom and brothers.
Kids tease her at school. “You don’t have a mom. You don’t have a mom.”
“I tell her, ‘Your mom died of a blood clot.’ Be honest about it. That’s all you can be,” he says.
Stodghill remembers the feeling while giving depositions for the case over the years. It was like there was no truth, just more-preferred and less-preferred versions of what happened.
“They ask you questions and then, when you respond, they come back with ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Are you sure that’s what you heard them say?’ ‘Are you sure that’s what you saw?’ Short of [presenting] a video, all I can do is tell you what I saw,” he says.
Now a veteran of civil litigation – with the bills to prove it — he doesn’t pretend to know how he would change the justice system.
“That’s beyond my training.” He holds up his hand like he’s taking an oath. “I plead that I am not a lawyer.”
Stodghill is a non-Catholic Christian who rarely goes to church and says he has no strong feelings one way or the other about abortion, contraception or larger questions on when life begins. He’s not too concerned with what the Church’s bishops think about such matters relative to what anyone else believes.
What he knows is that the twins in his wife Lori’s womb were people. It’s just common sense. He refers to Samuel Edward and Zachary James – who were due in March 2007– as “the boys.” It took him two months after they died to take apart the bedroom he and Lori set up for them. He imagines a life in which they’d all survived. Samuel and Zachery would be in first or second grade now. He still looks at the only pictures has of them — autopsy photos of the boys cleaned up and laid together on a white blanket.
Stodghill remembers how normal everything seemed the day they died. Lori had been feeling out of sorts and “tired, just like the [pregnancy] book and the doctor said she’d be.”
“Seven-months pregnant with twins takes a lot out of you. Being tired wasn’t anything unexpected. She was feeling OK,” he says.
Reclining at home, Lori had “balanced a plate on her stomach. [We’re] sitting there watching the kids bounce the plate back and forth— Yeah, back and forth! We’re just sitting there watching them kick. So, she was feeling much better and she said, go on, go to work.”
So he did, because she looked fine. She called him later to say Dr. Staples told her to go to the hospital, because she was still feeling unwell, it was Sunday and he wasn’t holding office hours. When he got home to pick her up, Stodghill said she looked the same, maybe dehydrated, and that there was no sense of heightened anxiety or urgency as they made the trip to the emergency room.
It was December 31st. Lori died of a heart attack an hour after they arrived at the hospital.
For the last seven years on New Years Eve, Stodghill said he brings a bottle of champagne and two glasses to the cemetery where his wife and boys are buried together in the same grave. “We have a drink together.”
Stodghill said if the Colorado Supreme Court decides not to reexamine the case in the next few weeks, it’s over. “That’s it,” he said.
He didn’t say what he thought might come of the bishops’ review of the hospital legal defense as it relates to Church teachings. For his part, six years of wrangling with Catholic Health has taught him that, at least in civil court, the dollar is almighty.
[ Photo by the Colorado Independent ]
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