In Historic Police Brutality Case, Family of Homeless Denver Pastor Killed in Custody Awarded $4.6 Million

As Denver faces a string of police brutality cases, a federal jury has awarded a historic $4.6 million in damages to the family of a homeless preacher killed while he was in the booking area of the Denver jail. Marvin Booker died after he was grabbed and then piled on by a team of officers who handcuffed him, put him in a chokehold and tasered him. The coroner ruled his death a homicide, but prosecutors declined to charge the deputies involved, and Denver Sheriff Department officials never disciplined them, saying Booker could have harmed someone and that force was needed to restrain him. The case highlights a history of alleged misconduct by the police department, and has added momentum to calls for reform both locally and nationwide in the aftermath of calls for justice in the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by an officer in Ferguson. We are joined by two guests: Rev. Reginald Holmes, pastor of the New Covenant Christian Church Alpha and Omega Ministries, who has been a leading voice calling for law enforcement accountability, and Susan Greene, editor of The Colorado Independent and longtime reporter formerly with The Denver Post.

TRANSCRIPT:

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re on the road in Denver, Colorado, broadcasting from the studios of Open Media Foundation/Denver Open Media. Denver has been plagued by a string of police brutality cases, and this week a federal jury awarded an historic $4.6 million to the family of a homeless preacher who died when sheriff’s deputies used excessive force against him. Marvin Booker was a homeless street preacher from a prominent family of Southern preachers. In 2010, he was killed by deputies in the booking room of the Denver jail.

Surveillance video of Booker’s death shows what happened. A warning to our TV viewers, as we show the video now, it contains disturbing content. It shows Marvin Booker being grabbed by an officer, then piled on by a team of officers, who then restrain him in handcuffs and put him in a chokehold. After he appears motionless, he’s then tasered. Eventually, deputies carry him out of sight of the camera. Booker was pronounced dead hours later in what the coroner ruled a homicide. Prosecutors declined to charge the deputies involved, and Sheriff’s Department officials never disciplined them, saying they believed Booker could harm someone and that force was needed to restrain him.

On Tuesday, Booker’s family and supporters gathered on the steps of Denver’s city jail after a jury awarded the Booker family $4.65 million in compensation and damages. This is Reverend Timothy Tyler, pastor at Shorter Community AME Church in Denver.

REV. TIMOTHY TYLER: Today, in the court of law, a jury stood up. A body of authority stood up for the first time in four years and declared that five sheriff deputies were guilty of excessive force, leading to the death of Marvin Lewis Booker. All Marvin wanted to do was get his shoes.

AMY GOODMAN: Marvin Booker’s case highlights a history of misconduct by the Denver Sheriff’s Department and added momentum to calls for reform. This is the attorney for Marvin Booker’s family, Darold Killmer, speaking after Tuesday’s verdict.

DAROLD KILLMER: This was not unforeseeable. This was inevitable. This is the way we’ve allowed our jails to be run, and too many people have been injured and maimed and killed. This case has been watched nationally, as well it should be. This happens in Colorado, in Missouri, in New York. It happens in California. It happens in Texas. It happens in Florida. This is a signal that people are not going to put up with it anymore. This is the people that are telling its government, “You have to change.” This issue has reached a tipping point.

AMY GOODMAN: The verdict in Booker’s case comes amidst calls for a federal investigation of the Sheriff Department of several cases of abuse. In July, Sheriff Gary Wilson resigned after Denver agreed to pay $3.3 million to settle another federal jail abuse lawsuit by a former prisoner over a beating. It was the largest payout in Denver history to settle a civil rights case—until the Booker case, which the city refused to settle. This is Denver Mayor Michael Hancock responding to the verdict in an interview with News 9.

MAYOR MICHAEL HANCOCK: It’s a loss of life. It’s a tragedy. This family lost a loved one. The whole city has had to deal with this. And, you know, certainly, we’re disappointed in the verdict and the amount of the verdict, but it doesn’t replace the life of Marvin Booker, and we understand that.

AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now! invited the mayor to join us on the program, but his office didn’t respond to our request.

For more, though, we are joined here in Denver by two guests. Reverend Reginald Holmes is pastor of the New Covenant Christian Church/Alpha and Omega Ministries. He has been a leading voice calling for law enforcement accountability in this case and others in Denver. He’s past president of the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance. And we’re joined again by Susan Greene, editor of The Colorado Independent, longtime reporter and columnist, formerly with The Denver Post. She’s followed the case of Marvin Booker extensively, along with numerous other cases of excessive force at the Denver jail.

Pastor Holmes, Susan Greene, welcome to Democracy Now! Pastor Holmes, let’s begin with you. Your response to the $4.6 million settlement that will go to Marvin Booker’s family?

REV. REGINALD HOLMES: Well, having spoken to the family, I think one of the things that the family wanted to be very clear about is that they’re grateful that this ordeal has come to some conclusion, but they did not want and do not want those of us who live here in Denver to believe that somehow the money is a panacea for their pain. And they are very adamant about what they want from this city, and that is, they want those officers removed from their positions. They’ve been very, very clear on that. I think the family—I spoke with Calvin, Marvin’s brother, on yesterday, and one of the things that Calvin said was, is that he wants the community to know that their family forgives the officers, but in forgiving the officers, in no way do they want the officers not to deal with the consequences of their actions.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how many officers were involved?

REV. REGINALD HOLMES: I believe there was a total of five officers that were involved in this case. Amy, the listeners and the viewers—well, the viewers, rather, have seen the video. This was no high-tech lynching. This was a vigilante lynching. This was a lynching in which it was sanctioned and supported by this city government. And it was sanctioned and supported all the way up until the trial. What was done to this family was unconscionable.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for radio listeners and people all over the world who have perhaps maybe seen this video for the first time, can you explain exactly what happened? Explain the date, and although I laid it out a bit in the lede, talk about what happened to Marvin Booker.

REV. REGINALD HOLMES: In July of 2010, Marvin was arrested. Marvin was in the booking area, getting ready to be processed. He had stayed in the booking area for some hours, and I don’t know exactly how many, but it was a while that he had remained in the booking area. When they finally got around to booking Marvin in, Marvin had taken off his shoes. He had become comfortable. They finally got to him. He was called up to the booking desk, which was being manned at the time by a female.

AMY GOODMAN: And you see this on the video.

REV. REGINALD HOLMES: You see this on the video. He goes up to the booking desk. He has a conversation, a conversation with the booking officer. Finally, she says to Marvin, “It’s time for you to go into the cell.” Marvin says, “Before I go, I need to go get my shoes.” He goes to get his shoes, and as he’s going to get his shoes, she says to him, “No, you can’t go.” She physically touches Marvin on the arm, and Marvin pulls away. And when he pulls away, that created the altercation. Officers came from everywhere. From the video, you can see that they pounced on top of him. Marvin was 135 pounds, 135 pounds, with existing medical conditions, a heart condition. He had a 250-pound officer, along with others, on top of him. The 250-pound officer put Marvin in a carotid chokehold, a chokehold that was held on him for minutes.

AMY GOODMAN: When you say “carotid,” you mean the carotid artery.

REV. REGINALD HOLMES: The carotid artery—choked Marvin out. The officers testified in court they felt threatened. Four of them on a 135-pound man, they felt threatened. And they were threatened so much that even with the carotid chokehold being applied, someone ordered Marvin to be tased. They actually took the time to go get a taser, to come back and to tase him. His body is limp. He has no movement. He’s fought. He’s struggled. He’s being choked, so it’s not that he’s resisting. He’s doing—

AMY GOODMAN: He’s handcuffed.

REV. REGINALD HOLMES: Yes, and he’s doing what anyone would do who’s gasping for air: He’s trying to get his last breaths. And in trying to get his last breath, the officers determined that he was still struggling. So they get a taser, and they tase him. They take him back to the cell and do not even give him the decency of checking up on him. And when it comes to the medical examiners getting there, of course, he’s dead.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did they do then?

REV. REGINALD HOLMES: Well, from the testimony in court, many of the officers—actually, four of them—went outside, smoked cigarettes. And we are assuming, although they did not admit it, but that was a time for them to corroborate their stories. The medical people came in, took Marvin in, but he was DOA, dead on arrival.

AMY GOODMAN: Susan Greene of The Colorado Independent, you wrote, “Tuesday’s verdict put an exclamation point on what civil rights activists and leaders of metro Denver’s African American community long have said: that Denver killed the wrong man.” Explain what you mean.

SUSAN GREENE: I mean that on several levels. I mean that, in part, because of what Pastor Holmes just said: He was a 135-pound man, a frail, homeless man, who had a bad heart. So he was not much bigger than me. He posed no threat. His struggle was, as everybody can see on the video, very minimal. And at the time that he was tased, he was motionless, OK? So, those facts, in and of itself, make him the wrong man.

Another thing is, there was an assumption by Marvin Booker and a portrayal of him after his death that he was just another homeless guy who was causing trouble in the jail. And what they didn’t calculate is that that “just homeless guy” had a rich history in the South, in his hometown in Memphis, where he became really well known, not just in Memphis, but throughout the South and really the nation, for having memorized Martin Luther King’s speeches. His family was close to Martin Luther King. He was 14 when Martin Luther King was shot in his community. Verbatim, he mentioned these speeches, and over time he was able to deliver them with the cadence and tone of King. And he was the guy who would go into churches and go into civil rights events and give the speeches that King wouldn’t give, right? He has two brothers who have congregations, who chose to be pastors. They followed in the footsteps of their father. He chose a different path. He wanted to preach on the street like, he said, Jesus did. He wasn’t a saint. He had some drug problems. The fact that he was homeless was disturbing to his family. They tried in many ways to help him. And he was really adamant that’s the life he wanted to live.

So, when he died, again, I think—and I was here when he died, and I know what the city’s response to it was, and I heard the city’s response at trial, which is, this guy had no value, he was a nothing, right? And they sat three weeks in trial and just denigrated him and smeared his relationships with his family.

AMY GOODMAN: When did the trial take place?

SUSAN GREENE: It took place for three weeks, and it ended on Friday, and the verdict was Tuesday.

AMY GOODMAN: So it was years later.

SUSAN GREENE: Four years.

REV. REGINALD HOLMES: Four.

SUSAN GREENE: Four years later. But when I say they picked the wrong man, they didn’t know that this man had a community of people in this city, nationally, in the faith community, who were behind him.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to read from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling on the officers’ treatment of Marvin Booker: quote, “The Defendants had a front-row seat to Mr. Booker’s rapid deterioration … [and] actively participated in producing Mr. Booker’s serious condition through their use of force against him.” The court added, quote, “Given their training, the Defendants were in a position to know of a substantial risk to Mr. Booker’s health and safety. Because Mr. Booker was handcuffed and on his stomach, we conclude the force was not proportional to the need presented.” Reverend Holmes, take it from there.

REV. REGINALD HOLMES: Yeah, we were quite pleased, because those of us in the community who said all along that the officers used excessive force and that they were actually liable for Marvin’s death, we were pleased when the 10th Circuit Court of Appeal came and said that the officers were indeed liable for using excessive force. This is a situation that’s happening, Amy, here in Denver, but as you well know, it’s happening all over this country. Police officers are the only people that we give a free pass when they exercise a lapse in judgment. And I don’t think we can continue to do that. We must hold them accountable. Yes, it’s a dangerous job, but you know it’s a dangerous job when you take the job. We don’t give the mechanic a free pass for a lapse in judgment. We don’t give the surgeon a free pass when there’s a lapse in judgment. But we continue—throughout this country, district attorneys continue to give police officers these free passes for their lapse in judgment.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break, but when we come back, I want to ask you, why four years?

REV. REGINALD HOLMES: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did it take four years for the settlement to happen? And also, about the other cases here in the greater Denver area. We’re talking with Reverend Reginald Holmes, pastor of the New Covenant Christian Church/Alpha and Omega Ministries, and we’re talking with the editor of The Colorado Independent. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in a minute here in Denver.