Greene: Michael Marshall’s jail killing prompts $4.65 million payout, new policies in Denver

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock has reached a $4.65 million settlement with the family of Michael Marshall, whom Denver Sheriff’s deputies killed in the city jail in November 2015. In addition to the legal payout, the city is agreeing to the family’s demands for new policies intended to protect inmates with mental illness.

The legal settlement announced this morning comes 10 days before the second anniversary of Marshall’s killing – the deadline the family would have had to file a civil rights lawsuit against the city before the statute of limitations is reached. By settling out of court, the Marshalls can avoid several years of litigation and an emotional civil trial like the one stemming from sheriff’s deputies’ 2010 killing of Marvin Booker who, like Marshall, was homeless, mentally ill, frail, and black.

The amount of the Marshall settlement is no coincidence. The civil trial in the Booker case ended with a jury award of $4.65 million to Booker’s family, plus another $1.35 million in attorney’s fees. Had the Marshall case gone to trial, it is likely a federal jury would have handed down a higher jury award to penalize the city for not changing its policies after killing Booker.

Marshall was 50 years old, 112 lbs., and a paranoid schizophrenic who kept a toy dragon in his pocket to protect him in a world he found confusing and often threatening. By coincidence, I met him two years ago today while he was petting a dog on Welton Street. He thought the dog belonged to my family and winced when he saw us approaching, assuming we’d admonish him for touching it.

“Uncle Michael was the most gentle man. He knew that not everyone understood him,” his niece, Natalia Marshall, once told me.

A week after our chance encounter, Marshall was arrested on a trespassing charge at a Colfax Avenue motel where he sometimes stayed. He was being held on a $100 bond.

A few days after that, his family received a call that he was in a coma at Denver Health Medical Center after an altercation at the jail. They were given no details about the incident and had to post his bond before they were allowed to visit him. They ended life support several days later when doctors told them he was brain dead.

Though Hancock promised “full transparency,” he refused to make public video recordings of the altercation Denver’s coroner ruled a homicide. The Colorado Independent sued the city under the state’s open records law in January 2016, and the administration released the videos a day later.

The images unfold in three parts, shot from two different overhead cameras in Denver’s jail.

The first shows Marshall in the jail’s 4th floor “secure sally port,” shirtless, his laundry in hand. When he tried putting his laundry on a shelf and then on a cart in the hall, some papers fell onto the floor. A sheriff’s deputy walked by the fallen papers and toward Marshall, who was pacing nervously back and forth.

A tall, stocky sheriff’s deputy stepped into the frame and stood watching Marshall. A second deputy walked by, and a third approached so that two deputies were standing on each side of the the jittery inmate. Both stood for a while, holding their belts, watching him. Then Marshall tried walking between one of the deputies and the wall in an attempt to get past him.

The deputy reached out, pinned Marshall to the cement block, then swung him back toward the bench. Two other deputies approached and swung Marshall to the floor where the three officers seemed easily to restrain him. A fourth officer walked up and stood over the others as they held Marshall to the floor — apparently without much physical effort — for about four minutes.

A deputy approached from down the hall with what looks like the cloth “spit hood” that, according to the autopsy, was placed over Marshall’s mouth. About eighteen minutes in, the crew of deputies lifted Marshall into a restraining chair to which they strapped his lifeless body, then stood around for about five minutes watching him. Finally, a deputy shook Marshall’s chest in what looked like an attempt to wake him. A medic apparently found Marshall had no pulse. Deputies started unstrapping him from the chair — slowly at first and then faster. The medics removed the spit hood from Marshall’s face and wiped what likely was the vomit his autopsy report indicates he choked on. He was lowered to the floor. A deputy performed CPR on Marshall on and off for about 20 minutes until he was lifted up, still limp. He was taken out of the camera’s view and the video ends.

As with the deputies in Booker’s case, none of those involved in Marshall’s killing were criminally charged or lost their jobs. And none had training on how to de-escalate a situation with an inmate whose mental illness may cause him or her to not comply with their orders.

At least 35 percent of prisoners at city jails are said to have some form of mental illness.

The Marshall family insisted on several non-monetary stipulations in the agreement their lawyers Mari Newman and Darold Killmer negotiated with Denver City Attorney Kristin Bronson.

Chief among them is that the city will hire mental health professionals to work 24/7 at the city jail downtown and at the county jail on Smith Road.

“This is the biggest factor in avoiding these casualties,” Newman says. “Instead of saying, ‘This guy’s noncompliant, we’re going to give him the smack down,’ deputies observing irregular behavior can reach out to mental health professionals who are trained to recognize what’s really going on and reach out to help the inmate.”

The city also has agreed to:

      Mandatory annual in-service training on mental illness for all for all jail personnel

      Protocols for communication between sheriff’s and medical providers and requirements to insure that physical safety as well as security needs are being addressed

      Mandatory annual in-service training for all deputies on de-escalation and tactical options with non-compliant inmates

      A policy that no longer leaves it up to deputies’ discretion whether to make medical and mental health treatment available to inmates

      Immediate hospital visitation (without having to post bond) for families of prisoners injured at city jails

      A requirement that the city provide regular reports on its compliance with all the new policies  for the next five years

The $4.65 million legal agreement will require approval by Denver’s City Council before it’s made final. Hancock has given his nod to the settlement and met this morning to offer his condolences to the Marshalls, with whom he hadn’t interacted in the two years since Michael’s death.

Speaking on behalf of her family, Natalia Marshall says no congratulations are in order.

“We didn’t win anything here. My uncle is still dead and those officers are still on duty working in that jail. The new policies were too late to save Uncle Michael,” she says, asking the public to give her family room to “breath and mourn,” and to get on with their lives.

Hancock is expected to seek a third term as Denver mayor. By settling out of court, he avoids further in a long string of embarrassments involving his safety department and its handling of excessive force cases.

In trying unsuccessfully to defend Booker’s killing during the 2014 civil trial, Hancock’s administration went to extraordinary lengths to try to smear Booker’s memory. Their lawyers strong suggestion was that Booker deserved to be killed. That defense strategy infuriated many clergy members and others in metro Denver’s African-American community who used to see Hancock – the city’s second black mayor – as an ally.

Last month, Denver District Attorney Beth McCann called for a grand jury investigation into the Sheriff’s Department’s handling of the Taser used to killed Booker in 2010. Evidence shows that the Taser data the department turned over to the coroner and internal affairs investigators is not from the Taser actually deployed on Booker, but rather from another Taser that was swapped in its place. That discrepancy came to light during the Booker civil trial, but the administration apparently did nothing about it.

In the meantime, Hancock’s Safety Manager Stephanie O’Malley and Police Chief Robert White are widely known to have been searching for other jobs for at least several months. And violence continues surging in Denver’s jails, which are overcrowded and understaffed.

Hancock, in response to the Booker verdict, hired Sheriff Patrick Firman as a “change agent.” Change didn’t come nearly fast enough. Marshall was killed a month later.

Photo courtesy of Michael Marshall’s family.


  1. “like Marshall, was homeless, mentally ill, frail, and black”

    It should also be noted that Hancock, the mayor of Denver is black.

  2. Is there a summary of awards such as this paid during the “administrations” of mayors, DAs, Public Safety, Sheriff and Police chief?

    Is there any comparison of totals between cities or counties? I’m guessing Denver is on the higher end, but that is only a guess. Phoenix & Joe Arpaio have gotten a great deal more press that I’ve seen, but I don’t know how the numbers compare.

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