As Thanksgivings go, this one is bittersweet for the Rev. Spencer Booker.
Yesterday, he got word that Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration is agreeing to pay the full $4.65 million that a federal jury awarded to the Booker family for the 2010 death of his brother, Marvin, at the hands of sheriffs deputies at the Denver jail. The city’s total payout will be $6 million, including attorneys’ fees and interest accrued before and after the jury verdict in October.
Booker is thankful to end his family’s four and a half year battle for recognition that “Marvin’s death was not justified and was very much illegal.”
“We’re gratified to come to a conclusion of this long struggle. This helps give our mother some remedy after what she has been through,” he said.
The jury award is the costliest ever levied against the city in an excessive force case. It’s slated for consideration – and, likely formal approval – by the city council in the coming weeks.
Marvin Booker was a 56-year-old, frail and homeless street preacher. He was arrested on an outstanding drug warrant in July 2010 and, while waiting in the jail’s booking area, had taken off his shoes. When his name was called, he started walking toward the booking desk, then turned around to get his shoes, disregarding an officer’s orders not to do so. An officer grabbed him, he struggled and several more officers then wrestled him to the ground, restrained him, put him in a carotid hold and Tasered him even after his body had gone limp.
Although the Denver coroner ruled his death a homicide, District Attorney Mitch Morrissey decided not to press charges against any of the officers responsible. Hancock’s safety department reprimanded none.
The Bookers sought justice through a federal civil rights lawsuit. Hancock’s administration aggressively defended the killing and spent weeks in trial this fall trying to besmirch Booker as a good-for-nothing bum, a vagrant drug user whose life, its portrayal went, seemed to have no value.
The city’s defense of Booker’s death – including the loss of key physical evidence in the case and several sworn statements by city officials that were vastly inconsistent with the facts of the case — infuriated not only the Bookers, a prominent family of southern preachers, but also their strong network black clergy members in Denver. Some members of the Greater Metro Denver Black Ministerial Alliance slammed Hancock for defending a killing they say wasn’t defensible and for prolonging the case for years by refusing to settle out of court.
“Sometimes righteousness has to win,” said Mari Newman, one of the Bookers’ lawyers.
The family aims to use some of the jury award to preserve Booker’s legacy as a social justice advocate and activist in the homeless community he chose, even though he had other options, to his home. The Bookers want to sponsor an annual event – maybe a Thanksgiving dinner – for homeless people in Denver, and help fund a new social justice center at Denver’s Shorter A.M.E. Church, which hosted and supported the family during their many trips here for legal proceedings.
Spencer Booker says his family also wants a memorial erected at the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center “to remind citizens and sheriffs that there was a Marvin Booker who came through those doors and didn’t come out because he was a victim of excessive force.”
“We want sheriffs officers to see that memorial every day as a reminder to use restraint and inmates to see it as a reminder that they must obey the rules,” he said.
Booker’s killing was one of a long string of excessive force cases that have continued at a steady clip since officers attacked him in 2010. Hancock has promised reforms in the sheriff’s department, including an emphasis on more officer restraint and swift reprimands or firings for officers who – as several videotapes have shown – haul off violently on prisoners.
“The city claims that it’s turning a corner, and we think the first step is to see a memorial to Marvin,” Newman said. “We don’t want to have to coerce the city into doing it. We want the city to do it because it’s the right thing.”
While Spencer Booker finds relief in the sizable jury award and the finality it brings to his family’s long legal case, he says there can be “no closure in the killing of my brother.”
“No jury award, no amount can bring him back. There’s no end to our frustration with the pattern of deadly excessive force in this country.”
The Rev. Booker ministers at a an A.M.E. church in St. Louis, seven miles from where Michael Brown was gunned down last summer. Several of his parishioners live in Ferguson and he spent time with Michael Brown’s family on Tuesday as part of a movement to carry on Brown’s memory by ending police violence.
“Even as I’m sitting in my bedroom tonight, protestors are out there protesting on Thanksgiving eve,” he said late Wednesday. “This is going to be a long protest and it’s not going to be over in a few days. The grand jury decision is very interrupting to the Thanksgiving season over here for protestors and the police and national guard members who are still engaged with this.”
Spencer Booker’s own Thanksgiving plans – to travel home to Memphis to be with his brothers and elderly mother – were interrupted by another act of violence: The shooting death Wednesday on one of his 17-year-old parishioners. It’s his job to console the family just as clergy members in Denver have consoled his family since July 2010.
With his congregants in grief and his city in turmoil, Spencer Booker felt he couldn’t fly away for a holiday with his family.
“I think for so many of us, so many of us are in shock over what seems to be an epidemic of brutality, police profiling, excessive force and murder,” he said. “Michael Brown and Marvin Booker had to sacrifice their lives in order to bring about redemption.”
It can be tough to give thanks, he said, when there’s still so much left to redeem.
[ Image: Spencer Booker interviewed in Denver after the October jury verdict that awarded the Booker family $4.65 million for the 2010 jail house murder of Marvin Booker.]