A mentally ill inmate who apparently posed no physical threat when three sheriff’s deputies restrained him into unconsciousness at the Denver jail has died after nine days on life support.
Michael Lee Marshall’s death today comes after a long string of use-of-force cases in Denver’s sheriff’s department, millions of dollars in legal payouts and years of promises by Mayor Michael Hancock that violence against prisoners — especially those of color, like Marshall, who was black – will end.
Marshall’s scuffle with deputies happened on November 11, less than a month after Hancock appointed a new sheriff, Patrick Firman, as a “change agent” to reform the wayward department.
“I think it’s fair to say that Sheriff Firman’s honeymoon period is over,” said Lisa Calderon, co-chair of the Denver Chapter of the Colorado Latino Forum, which watchdogs the sheriff’s department and its use of force.
“The pattern of dealing with frail or severely mentally ill inmates in harsh and punitive manners needs immediate and radical reform that the citizens of Denver are not only expecting, but paying millions of dollars for results,” she said.
“The goal should be not one more death in Denver’s jails. That should be the standard by which the new sheriff is measured.”
Wade Gardner is a Denver filmmaker who has been investigating the sheriff’s department, particularly the case of Marvin Booker, a frail black street preacher killed at the hands of deputies in the jail in 2010. Gardner took news of Marshall’s death this evening with frustration and anger.
“The city talks a lot about reform and transformation,” he says. “But we knew – we knew – this was going to happen again.”
City officials couldn’t be reached for comment.
Marshall, who was 50 and about 135 pounds, was arrested on charges of trespass and disturbing the peace after an incident at a Denver motel. His alleged offense was petty enough that bond in his case was set for $100.
His sister, Brenda Wright, told Denver 7 that he had suffered from paranoid schizophrenia since age 16. His symptoms — and homelessness — were apparent to those who encountered him days before his November 7th arrest.
A Colorado Independent source familiar with Marshall’s confrontation four days later said Marshall had been pacing nervously in the jail’s sally port without a shirt, trying to walk around a sheriff’s deputy. They say a video of the incident shows the deputy – who’s white and far bigger than Marshall – pulling Marshall toward a bench, then down to the ground where the deputy pressed his knee into Marshall’s back to restrain him. Two other deputies joined in to keep Marshall down.
The source saw no show of heavy force in the video, but was struck by the deputies’ apparent failure to talk Marshall down and by how long they held Marshall facedown on the ground. In question is whether Marshall resisted, as the deputies have reportedly claimed, or was motionless, as the view from the video apparently suggests. Also in question is what sort of medical condition he had before the incident.
Another video reportedly shows Marshall’s face, lifeless and blue, as medical personnel carried him out of the jail in a restraint chair.
Marshall was on life support at Denver Health with little or no brain activity until his death earlier today.
Hancock has promised sweeping reforms in the sheriff’s department since other inmates have died, been brutalized by deputies or beaten up by other inmates while deputies watched. A scathing review of the department by outside consultants called for sweeping reforms in the department, especially its use-of-force policy. Six months after that report was released, that policy still hasn’t been changed.
Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey’s office has been conducting interviews of the deputies involved. There has been some concern by investigators about the amount of time deputies were on top of Marshall.
Now that Marshall is dead, the probe becomes a homicide investigation and Morrissey will have to decide whether to press charges against the deputies. Morrissey has been the subject of much criticism and was the target of a recall effort earlier this year largely because he has never prosecuted a uniformed officer in an on-duty use-of-force case. Morrissey’s decision not to prosecute the deputies who killed Marvin Booker was especially controversial, especially after a federal jury slapped the city with a $6 million jury award against the city.
Said Calderon: “I think we can all presume that the DA will sit on the sidelines of this case as well.”
As of this report, the similarities between Marshall and Booker seem striking. Both men were in their 50s. Both were black, thin and about 135 pounds, with physical and mental health challenges. Both described themselves as street preachers. And both seem to have posed no threat to the sheriff’s deputies whose restraining efforts in the Denver jail led to their deaths.