Denver prosecutors are launching a grand jury investigation into the handling of the weapon that city sheriff’s deputies used in 2010 to kill a homeless street preacher in the city jail.
Today’s announcement by District Attorney Beth McCann comes after strong urging by Marvin Booker’s family and members of Denver’s civil rights community to investigate whether the officers responsible switched out the Taser to conceal an excessive use of force and whether top city officials have let them get away with it.
Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration long has failed to account for – or apparently look into – why the stun gun it relied on in its inquiries of Booker’s homicide was deployed more than a half-hour after he was shocked.
“DA McCann is on the right track toward getting justice for Marvin,” says Pastor Spencer Booker, one of Booker’s brothers. “We’ve known all the time that the Taser was missing and never came to trial. We’ve known all along there’s been a cover up.”
Hancock’s Safety Department said today it will “await the outcome of the Denver Grand Jury review before commenting.”
Booker, 56, died in July 2010 in the waiting area of the Denver’s Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center before being booked on an outstanding warrant for drug possession.
He had taken off his shoes in the seating area while waiting for his name to be called. When it was, at about 3:30 a.m., he walked sock-footed to the booking desk, then turned back to retrieve the shoes he’d left behind. A sheriff’s deputy grabbed him for ignoring her order that he return to the booking desk. Booker resisted, swinging his elbow toward her twice after she restrained his arm. Three other officers wrestled him to the ground, piled onto him, cuffed his hands behind his back, and put what’s called a sleeper hold on his neck. He died after Sgt. Carrie Rodriguez, the on-duty supervisor that morning, shocked him with a Taser.
The attack was captured on surveillance cameras.
Four of the five officers involved, including Rodriguez, still work in the Sheriff’s Department. None has been reprimanded for excessive force, and none criminally prosecuted.
Seven years later, questions linger about the Taser evidence, including:
1.) Why did Sgt. Rodriguez go to her office to purportedly lock up the Taser before seeking medical help for Booker, a detour the city’s official report omits?
2.) Why, as Booker was dying, did Rodriguez make another trip back to her office to retrieve the Taser, later testifying she thought she might need it for protection against him?
3.) Why did she hand in as evidence a Taser that wasn’t deployed the day of the incident?
4.) Why did a police detective investigating the case switch that Taser for another that was fired that day but 34 minutes after Rodriguez shocked Booker and for a much shorter time than video and eyewitness evidence suggest?
Denver’s Safety Department relied on data from the Taser the detective swapped into evidence to inform the autopsy report, the internal investigation of Rodriguez and the four deputies involved in Booker’s death, the Denver District Attorney’s decision not to press charges against the officers, and its own decision not to discipline or fire them.
The grand jury McCann announced today will investigate whether the evidence was tampered with criminally.
The inconsistencies with the Taser evidence first came to light during a 2014 federal civil rights trial and, McCann said this morning “justifies an inquiry into possible charges for which the statute of limitations has not yet expired,” McCann explained.
The probe will not look into whether to charge the officers with homicide. The decision not to press murder charges was made by McCann’s predecessor, Mitch Morrissey, and McCann will let that decision stick.
“In general and as a matter of policy, I do not believe it appropriate to re-open my predecessor’s charging decisions without new evidence surfacing,” McCann said in a statement this morning. “There is no new information that would warrant a re-examination of DA Morrissey’s decision not to file homicide charges.”
The Bookers say the chain of events around the handling of the Taser screams of a cover up. As they tell it, Rodriguez had motive to hide or destroy the original Taser and switch it for a proxy so she could avoid prosecution and keep her job after apparently having shocked Booker far longer than city policy allows. And they say Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration had an interest in overlooking potential evidence tampering and perjury to protect the city in the civil suit and to temper public outrage over the killing of a 135-lb. man who, even by the officers’ accounts, presented no physical threat.
The family won a $6 million jury award in its civil suit against the officers and the city for wrongful death and civil rights violations. They say the administration still owes them answers about the Taser evidence.
Hancock’s administration long has declined giving those answers because of the potential for criminal charges against its staff.
“Wow. Man. Wow,” Pastor Terrance Hughes, president of the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance said this morning when learning of the grand jury investigation. “With fresh eyes and a new DA, prayerfully, we’ll finally get justice for this Booker family. This has been a long time coming.”
Photo of Marvin Booker courtesy of his family.