By SADIE GURMAN, The Associated Press
DENVER (AP) — Five Denver sheriff’s deputies followed the rules when they used a sleeper hold and stun gun to restrain a homeless street preacher who died in the downtown jail, a defense attorney said Monday.
The comments by Denver attorney Thomas Rice came during opening statements in a federal civil trial involving the deputies accused of using excessive force in connection with the death of Marvin Booker.
The 5-foot, 135-pound inmate died in July 2010 after deputies subdued him in the booking area of the jail.
The trial comes amid calls for a federal investigation of the department over other high-profile abuse cases.
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 jail beating.
Inmates told investigators the struggle began 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 for comfort.
Booker, 56, who was arrested on an outstanding warrant for drug possession, was cursing and refusing to follow orders, authorities have said. 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.
Attorney Mari Newman, who is representing the family of Booker, countered in court that the force was a malicious overreaction to the inmate. She said deputies stunned him for too long and should have backed down when Booker said he was struggling to breathe.
“The fact that he was frail makes it all the more outrageous,” she said.
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 death was the result of his own poor choice to keep resisting deputies even as they tried to subdue him with increasing force.
“Mr. Booker made the decision to fight the officers, who never lost their temper and never lost control of their actions,” he said. “All he had to do was stop, follow the rules and behave like all of the other inmates and we wouldn’t be here.”
Rice claimed an inmate in better health would have survived.
Prosecutors declined to charge the deputies, and 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.
Booker’s family filed the federal suit seeking unspecified damages against the city and county of Denver as well as deputies Faun Gomez, James Grimes, Kyle Sharp and Kenneth Robinette and Sgt. Carrie Rodriguez.
In a rare move, the city last week accepted liability for Booker’s death, which could prevent his family’s attorneys from presenting evidence from other excessive force complaints.
Surveillance footage played in court shows three officers wrestling Booker onto chairs then down to the floor before two others join the scuffle. One puts his arm around Booker’s neck for about three minutes. Officials said at the time that a deputy warned Booker to stop resisting.
An autopsy report said deputies had their body weight on Booker’s back for four minutes while he was face-down on the floor.
The video also shows deputies carrying Booker’s limp body to an isolation cell after one of them stunned him for at least eight seconds.
Newman said deputies showed no concern for Booker’s health after the incident and should have summoned medical care sooner.
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