Michael Lee Marshall and Marvin Booker: Parallels in both life and death

Michael Lee Marshall didn’t know about Marvin Booker until days before he died.

The two men had lots in common.

Both had mental health problems and spent much of their lives homeless in Denver. Both identified themselves as street preachers. Both were black, and in their 50s. And, weighing about 135 pounds, neither appears to have posed a physical threat to the Denver sheriff’s deputies who fatally restrained them.

Booker was wrestled to the floor, constrained by five officers, Tasered and choked in July 2010 after he ignored a deputy’s orders and tried to fetch his shoes in the jail’s booking area. The officers involved in his homicide kept their jobs and faced no criminal charges. Still, a federal jury ordered Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration last fall to pay Booker’s family a record $6 million for their wrongful death and civil rights claims against the city.

Hancock since has promised sweeping changes to the sheriff’s department, including reforms to how it works with mentally ill inmates, how it trains deputies on racial issues and when they’re authorized to use force.

But those reforms haven’t yet been put in place, creating what Booker’s family sees as the “inevitability” that another inmate would be killed in custody.

“Unfortunately, it’s all too little, too late for Mr. Marshall,” Pastor Spencer Booker, Marvin Booker’s brother told The Independent Sunday. “It comes as no surprise that a city that doesn’t prosecute — let alone fire — deputies who kill people is going to have yet another homicide on its hands.”

“How ironic is it that one year after we vindicated our brother’s civil rights with a jury of his peers, the city seems to have learned nothing and made no changes? Did all that money, all that tax money, get paid out with nobody having made any progress training deputies on sensitivity or how to de-escalate these kinds of situations?

“I have to wonder if they’ve targeted black homeless men. Street preachers. And I have to wonder if, in Mr. Marshall’s case, they’re just going to high-five each other once again and say ‘we got away with another murder of a black man’.”

Neither the Mayor’s office nor the department of safety responded to inquiries for this story.

Marshall, 50, had paranoid schizophrenia. He was arrested on November 7 on charges of trespassing and disturbing the peace at a motel on Colfax Ave. where he occasionally stayed. He was booked at Denver’s jail and held on $100 bond.

So far, the city hasn’t released a videotape that reportedly shows Marshall in the sally port on the jail’s fourth floor four days after his arrest trying to walk around a white sheriff’s deputy who appears to have been about twice his size. He was restrained by that deputy, then by two others who reportedly put a guard over his mouth to keep him from spitting at them. One early theory about Marshall’s death is that the spit guard may have caused him to choke on his vomit.

It took months of legal wrangling by lawyers with Killmer, Lane and Newman LLP to prod the city to release the video of Booker’s killing. The same firm that represented Booker’s estate –and won the $6 million jury award — is handling the Marshall case.

Attorney Mari Newman is calling for an outside investigation of Marshall’s death, saying the “city can’t be trusted to investigate its own.”

Spencer Booker said Marshall’s family should expect the city to stall, obfuscate, destroy evidence, cover up the facts and smear Marshall’s name “just like they did to Marvin.” He expresses his solidarity, saying, “The Bookers will be there for the Marshalls every step of the way through this ordeal – every single step of the way.

“They have our word.”

The Denver Medical Examiner’s office said this morning that an autopsy on Marshall’s body was done on Saturday, the day after his family ended the life support that had kept him alive for nine days after his confrontation in the jail. Release of his death certificate is pending toxicology results.

If his death is ruled a homicide, all eyes will be on Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey’s office to press criminal charges against the deputy or deputies responsible. In nearly 11 years in office, Morrissey has never prosecuted a killer cop – a record that prompted an effort to recall him earlier this year. Morrissey’s detractors are especially critical of his decision not to prosecute the deputies who killed Booker.

“Now’s the time for action,” Spencer Booker said Sunday. “We’re urging the citizens of Denver to write to Mitch Morrissey with the message that the deputies — not the taxpayers – need to pay for the illegal activities in that jail.”

Marshall had expressed trepidation about law enforcement six days before his arrest and ten days before he lost brain function at the hands of his jailers.

He had been petting a dog on Welton Street the morning of November 1 when I was heading into a deli with my friend, Andrew Romero. Romero struck up a conversation with Marshall, first about the dog and then about the warm weather.

“I said something like, ‘Great day, huh?’ And he said, ‘No, it’s actually not that great of a day. You got no idea, man. I’m homeless’,” Romero says.

He offered to buy Marshall a bagel, but Marshall said he’d prefer just coffee. The two spent about half an hour at a nearby café where Marshall ordered and prepared his signature concoction of coffee with cool water, taking care to split it between cups into which he poured dozens of teaspoons of sugar and Splenda, and then stirred and stirred and stirred.

When Marshall told Romero he was a street preacher, Romero asked if by chance had known Marvin Booker or was familiar with how Booker died. Marshall said he wasn’t and asked what had happened.

“His response was that he avoids law enforcement whenever possible,” Romero said. “He said the cops really scared him.”