Denver’s review of jailhouse killing has taken 13 months, and counting

It has been nearly 13 months since the Denver Sheriff’s Department launched its internal investigation into the death of Michael Marshall, a mentally ill homeless man who choked on his own vomit while being restrained by deputies. Despite promises for a quick and transparent investigation, Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration still hasn’t released its findings.

The internal inquiry into Marshall’s death has taken even longer than the review of deputies’ 2010 killing of another homeless man, Marvin Booker – a 10-month investigation for which the city was criticized for dragging its feet.

Marshall, 50 and 112 pounds, was arrested on a trespassing charge on Nov. 7, 2015 and was being held in the city jail on a $100 bond. On Nov. 11, he had an acute episode of paranoid schizophrenia and tried passing a deputy in a hallway. Deputies pinned Marshall to the floor and in the minutes that followed, he choked on his own vomit. Marshall was brain dead for nine days before his family took him off life support.

The coroner ruled Marshall’s death a homicide. The Denver DA decided against prosecuting the deputies involved. Then-Deputy DA Mitch Morrissey said the evidence was not enough to ensure a jury would find beyond a reasonable doubt that the force deputies used was unreasonable or inappropriate.

With the closure of the DA’s criminal investigation last January, the Denver Sheriff’s Department began its own administrative review into its deputies’ actions. Asked this week what the delay in the investigation has been, Daelene Mix, communications director for the Denver Department of Public Safety, told The Colorado Independent that while the department seeks to work quickly, “cases can be complex and require time to review depending on the unique circumstances of the related incident.”

During Hancock’s first term in office, clergy members, civil rights activists and other city watchdogs slammed Hancock for what they deemed as insensitivity for failing to keep the family of Marvin Booker apprised of the city’s investigation into Booker’s July 2010 homicide. Five sheriff’s deputies choked and Tasered the 137-pound street preacher when he was walking in the wrong direction in the booking area of the new downtown jail, trying to fetch shoes. Morrissey did not prosecute the deputies in the case, either and Hancock’s administration ultimately decided not to discipline them. A federal jury later hit the city with a $6 million civil rights award to Booker’s family.

Hancock and O’Malley promised to do a better job communicating with Marshall’s family than the city had with Booker’s family. The administration said it was “committed to transparency.”

That transparency has come in the form of occasional letters from O’Malley to Marshall’s family keeping them apprised of the internal investigation.

O’Malley’s letter in December 2015 said “…(A)s we have demonstrated, resources within the department continue to be deployed in a manner that supports expediency…”

In February, she wrote that “a thorough and timely review remains a high priority for the Sheriff Department and my office” and that she would “continue to push (for) expediency.”

In April and May 2016, she wrote the city would continue to “work with urgency” and to “move expeditiously” to finalize the investigation and administrative review.

In June, O’Malley wrote to say “the administrative review of Mr. Marshall’s death is nearing conclusion.”

And in November 2016 – a year after Marshall’s killing – she wrote, “It is my earnest hope that the closure you seek surrounding the death of your loved one will be provided in the near future.”

But the near future has come and gone, and lawyers for Marshall’s family say they’ve learned nothing about his death other than O’Malley’s “say-nothing letters,” which they call “meaningless.”

“They promised a quick and transparent investigation. It’s been neither one. We still have no substantive information,” says attorney Mari Newman.

In the meantime, Marshall’s family is indignant.

“For months and months now, they keep sending us form letters saying we’ll have answers soon. But their answers never come. We are being ignored,” says Marshall’s niece, Natalia Marshall.

Mix said in her statement to The Independent that the department knows that the time it takes to do the review “can be difficult for family members and loved ones, and we strive to the best of our ability to ensure a resolution which is as timely as possible given the unique circumstances of each case.”

Mix said that once  the department completes its investigation, the file, which includes interviews with witnesses, case documents and video, goes to the Office of the Independent Monitor, which conducts its own review to determine whether further investigation is needed. From there, it goes back to the Sheriff’s Department and its Conduct Review Office, which reviews the investigation.  When that last review is complete, she said, the Conduct Review Office and the Office of the Independent Monitor let the sheriff know whether department or Career Service Authority rules or regulations were violated. Mix was unable to say at the time of this posting what stage the Marshall investigation is in.

A videotape of the incident, for which The Colorado Independent sued for access in January 2016, shows that as Marshall tried to pass a deputy in the hallway, the officer reached out, briefly pinned him to the wall, and, as Marshall seemed to slide toward the floor, swung him back to the bench. That officer, along with two other deputies, then pinned Marshall to the floor. The three officers restrained him, holding him down — apparently without much physical effort — for about four minutes.

The video shows several deputies leaning on and standing over Marshall for several minutes. It’s unclear from the footage if they were restraining him, giving him medical care or both.

At one point, 13 minutes into the video, at least five uniformed officers and three staffers who appear to be medics were leaning over Marshall. They then stepped away, leaving five deputies still restraining Marshall on the floor. Seventeen minutes into the video, a deputy approached with what looks like a cloth “spit hood” that, according to the autopsy, was placed over Marshall’s mouth. About 18 minutes in, the crew of deputies lifted Marshall into a restraining chair and out of view of the first camera.

A second camera shows deputies spent about three minutes strapping Marshall’s seemingly limp shoulders and arms into the chair while as many as 10 uniformed officers surrounded him. Some time shortly after being strapped to the chair, his heart stopped.

A deputy shook Marshall’s chest in what looked like an attempt to wake him. When a medic apparently found Marshall had no pulse, deputies started unstrapping him from the chair, slowly at first and then quickly. Medics removed the spit hood from Marshall’s face and wiped what likely was the vomit his autopsy indicates he choked on. He was lowered to the floor, where deputies performed CPR on him on and off for about 20 minutes until he was lifted up, still limp, and taken out of the camera’s view.

Without details about her uncle’s death, Natalia says she is left with the images of deputies strapping his limp body in a restraint chair.

“Those images keep playing over and over and over in my head,” she says. “It’s been well over a year and I’m frustrated, beyond frustrated, that we don’t know what happened to my uncle. To be honest, it feels like we’re up against a giant and that giant, again, has defeated us.”

Photo by Natalia Marshall

A recovering newspaper journalist, Susan reported for papers in California and Nevada before her 13 years as a political reporter, national reporter and metro columnist at The Denver Post. “Trashing the Truth,” a series she reported with Miles Moffeit, helped exonerate five men, prompted reforms on evidence preservation and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in investigative journalism. Her 2012 project, “The Gray Box,” exposed the effects of long-term solitary confinement. The ACLU honored her in 2017 for her years of civil rights coverage, and the Society of Professional Journalists honored her in April with its First Amendment Award. Susan and her two boys live with a puppy named Hymie whom they’re pretty sure is the messiah.