The family of Marvin Booker got a bit closer to justice for their deceased relative Tuesday when a federal jury awarded the family $4.6 million in damages after finding that five Denver sheriff’s deputies used excessive force in killing the homeless street preacher in 2010.
Booker’s death came as a result of the deputies’ mind-blowingly inhumane treatment of the frail 56-year-old: they used a Taser on him while he was handcuffed, then put him in a sleeper hold and laid on top of him.
Denver’s medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, saying it was caused by cardiorespiratory arrest during restraint. Other factors in his death were emphysema, an enlarged heart and recent cocaine use, according to the medical examiner.
Coming at a time when the nation is focused on so many other instances of law enforcement killing Black men in ugly examples of excessive force, Booker’s case in Denver is another finger pointing at the desperate need for some type of national reform.
Booker’s struggle with the deputies was initiated, according to other inmates, when Booker was ordered to sit down in the jail’s booking area but instead moved to collect his shoes, which he had taken off earlier to be more comfortable. He was in jail because he had been arrested on an outstanding warrant for drug possession.
But the deputies said Booker was cursing and refusing to follow orders, which apparently required them to use a Taser and sleeper hold on the frail man. Thomas Rice, a lawyer representing the city of Denver, told jurors the actions taken by the deputies were in line with the sheriff department’s policies for handling a combative inmate.
During the trial, Rice blamed Booker’s death on his heart problems, claiming 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.”
After Booker’s death, prosecutors declined to press charges against the deputies responsible — Faun Gomez, James Grimes, Kyle Sharp and Kenneth Robinette and Sgt. Carrie Rodriguez. In fact, the sheriff’s department never even disciplined them, claiming it was reasonable for the deputies to believe Booker could harm someone and that force was necessary to restrain him.
“We finally got justice for my brother,” the Rev. Calvin Booker said after the jury award. “My father and brother can rest in peace now.”
Booker’s abuse was not an isolated incident in the sheriff’s department. The city had to pay a $3.3 million settlement in another federal lawsuit filed by a former inmate over a beating — the largest payout in city history to settle a civil rights case, according to The Associated Press. In the wake of that settlement, former sheriff Gary Wilson resigned in July. There were loud calls in Denver for a federal investigation of the department over other high-profile abuse cases that forced the sheriff’s department to make reforms.
“Something has to change,” the family’s lawyer Darrold Killmer said to the jury on Booker’s behalf, urging 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.”
Killmer told the jury that the deputies stunned Booker for too long and should have backed down when he said he was struggling to breathe.
“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. He pointed out that the deputy who stunned Booker submitted the wrong Taser for analysis.