No indictment for mishandling of Taser in Denver excessive force case

A grand jury has chosen not to issue indictments against four Denver sheriff’s deputies and a sergeant in connection with the handling of the Taser with which they killed a homeless street preacher in the city jail.

After The Colorado Independent reported last year on disparities between the facts of Marvin Booker’s 2010 killing and data from the stun gun the city produced as evidence, District Attorney Beth McCann convened a grand jury to investigate. In question was whether someone in Denver’s Safety Department switched out the Taser for another to hide officers’ excessive use of force and, if so, whether it rose to the level of criminal evidence tampering or perjury.

Data downloaded from the Taser would have been the only way to know if officers shocked Booker three times longer than city policy allows, as witnesses’ testimony and videotape evidence suggest. Without that data, Booker’s family says it is left to wonder how much he suffered while dying, why the weapon used in the city’s most notorious excessive force case was not the one turned over to police or apparently entered into evidence, and whether eight years later, anybody will ever be held accountable.

“Now the entire municipality of Denver joins those sheriffs (in) a major cover up with Marvin’s blood on their hands,” Booker’s brother, the Rev. Spencer Booker, wrote in a letter Tuesday from his home near St. Louis.

“Our intent is to seek and receive justice,” he added, “no matter how long it takes.”

Marvin Booker, 56, came from a family of Southern pastors and preached on the streets of Denver to people with addiction, mental health, and housing challenges similar to those that he, too, was facing. 

Early on July 9, 2010, he was arrested on an outstanding warrant for drug possession and was waiting to be booked into Denver’s Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center. When his name was called, he walked sock-footed toward the booking desk, and then turned back to retrieve shoes he’d taken off and left in the waiting area.

An officer ordered him to stop walking. Video shows four deputies piling on top of him, cuffing him, and putting him in a chokehold in front of several witnesses. While he lay on the floor, hands cuffed behind his back and deputies holding him down, their sergeant electroshocked him with a Taser. He died during the attack or shortly after while officers stood nearby. 

They later admitted in court that Booker, who weighed 135 lbs., presented no physical threat.

Eight years later, questions linger about the Taser evidence, including:

  • why the Sheriff’s sergeant, Carrie Rodriguez, went to her office to lock up the Taser before seeking medical help for Booker – a detour the city’s official report omitted
  • why, before returning Booker’s limp and lifeless body, Rodriguez made another trip back to the lockbox in her office to retrieve the Taser she had locked up minutes earlier, later testifying she thought she might need it for protection against him
  • why she handed in as evidence a Taser with a different serial number and that wasn’t deployed the day of the incident
  • and why a police detective investigating the case switched that Taser for yet another Taser that was fired the day of the incident but 34 minutes after Rodriguez shocked Booker and for a much shorter time than video and eyewitness evidence suggest

Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration relied on data from the Taser the detective placed into evidence to inform Booker’s autopsy report, the internal investigation, the Denver District Attorney’s decision not to press charges against the officers, and its own decision not to discipline or fire them.

The Bookers have said the mishandling of the Taser screams of a cover up.

They say Rodriguez had motive to switch the original Taser for a proxy so she could avoid prosecution for Booker’s homicide and keep her job.

They also say 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 that four of the five officers involved in Booker’s killing, including Rodriguez, still work for the Sheriff’s Department. None has been criminally prosecuted nor reprimanded for use of excessive force.

A civil case the family filed against the officers and city meandered through the court system, leading to a scathing decision by the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals debunking the city’s version of events. The 10th Circuit pointed to the discrepancy between the eight seconds recorded in data downloaded from the Taser entered into evidence and the 25 or more seconds that video evidence shows Rodriguez holding the stun gun to Booker’s leg.

Testimony during the civil trial in U.S. District Court also revealed that the Taser the city entered into evidence was activated more than a half hour after Rodriguez shocked Booker. 

Rodriguez admitted during court proceedings that the Taser she turned in as evidence was not the Taser she used on Booker. Her best guess about the discrepancy, she testified, was that she accidentally switched them out in a lockbox in her office.

Despite a Sheriff’s Department policy requiring officers to file a report whenever they deploy a Taser, no such report was filed in the Booker case because, Rodriguez testified, she was instructed not to do so. When asked by whom, she said, “My command staff or my attorneys. Somebody told me not to.”

The $6 million award the federal jury granted the Bookers in 2014 was, at that point, the highest in Denver’s long history of excessive force cases. 

Even after gaping holes in the evidence have come to light, the Hancock administration has not ordered an investigation into the handling of the Taser. His administration hasn’t responded to an inquiry for this story.

The city’s inaction led the Booker family to ask last summer for an investigation by McCann, who had been sworn in as Denver DA six months earlier But McCann refused the family’s request to reexamine the decision made by her predecessor, Mitch Morrissey, not to prosecute the officers. And, rather than making a decision about whether to charge the officers for evidence tampering or perjury, she turned the investigation over to a grand jury. 

State law shrouds in secrecy details about grand jury investigations, leaving no way to know the nature and depth of the panel’s work.

“We/Beth are bound by (law) regarding the secrecy of grand jury proceedings,” McCann’s spokesman, Ken Lane, wrote in an email Tuesday.

The grand jury may issue a report about the case, but, it’s unclear whether this one will do so.

In his letter, Spencer Booker wrote that district attorneys “dictate(s) the desired outcome” of grand jury investigations, suggesting that McCann didn’t press hard enough for an indictment. He slammed McCann for having “relinquished her duty to grant complete justice for Marvin Louis Booker,” surmising that she gave in to “political pressure” “to maintain the status quo” in a city that has been widely criticized for not criminally prosecuting – nor, in the vast majority of cases, even disciplining – officers for excessive force.

Spencer Booker said he and his family are “still processing the unbelievable decision” by the grand jury, about which McCann notified them Monday. “When I’ve had a chance to calm down,” he added, “I’ll say more.”

Photo of Marvin Booker courtesy of his family.

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.