Jury: Denver deputies used excessive force in death of homeless man

Photo: Booker family (AP Photo)
Anna Bond, center, and Gayle Booker, second from left, the sister, and sister-in-law, of Marvin Booker, exit the Denver County courthouse in September 2014.

A federal court jury on Tuesday found five Denver sheriff's deputies used excessive force against a homeless street preacher who died in 2010.

The jury awarded the family of Marvin Booker $4.6 million in damages.

Booker died after deputies shocked him with a Taser while he was handcuffed, put him in a sleeper hold and lay on top of him. Darrold Killmer, the Booker family's attorney, said that was a zealous overreaction to the frail 56-year-old.

The Booker family was in tears after the verdict was announced.

"We finally got justice for my brother," the Rev. Calvin Booker said. "My father and brother can rest in peace now."

A lawyer representing the city of Denver, Thomas Rice, told jurors that the deputies' actions were in line with the sheriff department's policies for handling a combative inmate.

The three-week trial came amid calls for a federal investigation of the department over other high-profile abuse cases that prompted the sheriff's department to make sweeping reforms. Former sheriff Gary Wilson resigned in July as the city agreed to pay $3.3 million to settle another federal jail-abuse lawsuit by a former inmate over a beating. It was the largest payout in city history to settle a civil rights case.

"Something has to change," Killmer said in urging the Booker jury to award a large payout. "We need a voice from the community to say, something has to change. This isn't the way we're going to do business anymore."

Booker's family filed the federal suit against the city and county of Denver as well as deputies Faun Gomez, James Grimes, Kyle Sharp and Kenneth Robinette and Sgt. Carrie Rodriguez. Inmates told investigators that the struggle began when he was ordered to sit down in the jail's booking area but instead moved to collect his shoes, which he had taken off for comfort.

Booker, who was arrested on an outstanding warrant for drug possession, was cursing and refusing to follow orders, according to the deputies' account. He was restrained by deputies who got on top of him, placed him in a sleeper hold, handcuffed him and shocked him with a stun gun.

Attorneys representing the family of Booker said deputies stunned him for too long and should have backed down when Booker said he was struggling to breathe. In his closing arguments, Killmer said the "dogpile" of deputies was a zealous overreaction.

"Mr. Booker was essentially doing a pushup with all those deputies on his back," he said, adding that the department then tried to "whitewash" the incident with a shoddy investigation. Among other mistakes, Killer said the deputy who stunned Booker submitted the wrong Taser for analysis and questioned whether the right one was ever found.

Denver's medical examiner said Booker died of cardiorespiratory arrest during restraint, and ruled his death a homicide. The report listed other factors in his death, including emphysema, an enlarged heart and recent cocaine use.

Rice said Booker's heart problems caused his death, and a healthier inmate would have survived the encounter.

The deputies "hadn't the slightest notion that Mr. Booker had a heart condition," Rice told jurors. "The bad heart was the trigger."

Prosecutors declined to charge the deputies. Sheriff's department officials never disciplined them, saying it was reasonable for the deputies to believe he could harm someone and that force was necessary to restrain him.