Excessive-force trial throws spotlight on notorious Denver jail

For four years, two months and 13 days, Denver’s official rap on Marvin Booker has been that the street preacher died of natural causes in the booking area of the city jail — coincidentally while under a pile of deputies who had handcuffed, nunchucked, choked and Tasered him.

City internal affairs investigators shaped that narrative when they found no wrongdoing by the deputies, even though the excessiveness of their force was plain to see on videotape.

Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey chose not to press charges against the officers despite a city autopsy showing Booker’s death was a homicide.

As Mayor Michael Hancock has stayed mum on the issue, his bevy of city attorneys have stuck with the story in defending the city and officers against a civil rights suit filed by Booker’s family. The trial starts today.

Lawyers for the city have argued that the deputies rightly subdued Booker, whom they said was acting up and resisting their orders. They asked a U.S. District judge to dismiss the case on grounds that city officials should be immune from being sued for doing their jobs.

The judge didn’t buy the story. So the city took its case to the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In a scathing decision handed down in March, the appeals court agreed that the city’s version of events doesn’t jibe with what dozens of witnesses saw and the videotape clearly shows – 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 had gone limp, deputies negligently ignored signs that he was dying.

“The Defendants had a front-row seat to Mr. Booker’s rapid deterioration. Unlike many deliberate indifference cases, here the Defendants actively participated in producing Mr. Booker’s serious condition through their use of force against him, which included a carotid neck hold, considerable weight on his back, and a Taser. Given their training, the Defendants were in a position to know of a substantial risk to Mr. Booker’s health and safety,” the opinion reads. “Because Mr. Booker was handcuffed and on his stomach, we conclude the force was not proportional to the need presented.”

The appeals court ruled there is no immunity for the sheriffs deputies named as plaintiffs in the federal civil rights case.

The 59-page ruling graphically and unequivocally debunks the city’s rendition of Booker’s death. The panel of three federal appeals court judges saw on the videotape a level of brutality that is clear to most everyone — except city officials — who has watched it. The opinion not only makes it questionable that a federal jury will believe the yarn the city has spun about Booker’s death, but also raises questions about the way Hancock’s administration continues to twist facts in more recent misconduct cases.

“Denver’s claims that the video shows anything other than five Denver Sheriffs’ use of wildly excessive force against a man who has been totally restrained is willful blindness to the facts, plain and simple,” Mari Newman, a lawyer for Booker’s family, told The Independent over the summer. “The City of Denver continues to allow its law enforcement officers to act as though they are above the law. Denver consistently fails to adequately discipline its officers who violate the law, empowering and emboldening them to go on to further abuses.”

Several black pastors have for the past four years stood by Booker’s family, which includes a long line of civil rights activists and preachers. As excessive forces cases continue at the city jail — see here, here, here and here — they’ve vowed not to let Marvin Booker’s memory fade and not to stop pressuring the city to reform policies in its jail.

“Abuses had been happening in the system long before Marvin Booker’s death and continue to this day,” said the Rev. Reginald C. Holmes, pastor of New Covenant Christian Church Alpha and Omega Ministries and past president of the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance. Holmes has been an outspoken critic of the city’s use of force policies since Denver police fatally shot Paul Childs, a mentally disabled boy, in 2003. Most recently, Holmes’ criticism is aimed at the city jail, from which news stories about excessive force cases emerge at a steady clip.

“What people aren’t asking and what people aren’t saying is that the building, is it conducive to safety. What is it about this building that does not seem to be safe? What is it about this building and the people who work there that all these incidents are happening? And why do these incidents continue?” he said.

Toward the end of his life, Booker, 56, did his preaching where he lived – on the streets of Denver where he was arrested on a drug paraphernalia charge and later hauled into jail for failing to appear in court.

He had dozed off in the jail’s holding area after 3 a.m. when his name was called and he was ordered to the booking desk. Bleary with sleep, Booker shuffled toward the desk in his socks. He either didn’t hear, ignored or refused a deputy’s order to sit at the desk, apparently because he was turning back to get his shoes.

Videotape shows one deputy, and then a throng of others, grabbing Booker, handcuffing him and shoving him face down onto the floor. For the next few minutes, the gaggle of officers subdue his frail, motionless body with the full force of their much bigger bodies, a chokehold and a stun gun. Several other deputies and medical staff stood watching – nobody appearing on videotape to be outwardly bothered by the prolonged attack. Booker died soon after.

The videotape of the event, released reluctantly and belatedly by the city, begins with a warning to viewers: “Please be advised that images on this DVD are of actual events and may be disturbing to some viewers.”

The video will be key evidence in the civil rights trial in U.S. District Court. It is, in fact, disturbing to some viewers. Jurors – who are being selected today — will be tasked with deciding how disturbingly law enforcers should be able to act on the job and get away with it in Colorado.