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

October 17, 2014


Reginald Holmes

pastor of the New Covenant Christian Church/Alpha and Omega Ministries, and past president of the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance.

Susan Greene

editor of The Colorado Independent. She is a longtime reporter and columnist, formerly with The Denver Post. She has followed the case of Marvin Booker extensively, along with numerous other cases of excessive force at the Denver jail.

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.


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.


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?


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!,, The War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in a minute here in Denver.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Denver Open Media in Denver, Colorado, where the largest jury verdict in a police brutality case—in any case [sic]—has just come down, $4.6 million to the family of Marvin Booker, who was killed in July of 2010 in the booking room of a Denver jail. We’re joined by Susan Greene, editor of The Colorado Independent, and Reverend Reginald Holmes, who is pastor of the New Covenant Christian Church/Alpha and Omega Ministries, past president of the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance. So, if you can explain this, Reverend Holmes, the largest jury verdict—this wasn’t a settlement, there were other larger settlements—$4.6 million, who were the defendants here?

REV. REGINALD HOLMES: The defendants in the case was actually the city and county of Denver and the individual officers who perpetrated this crime, this murder.

AMY GOODMAN: But it’s a civil case, so they don’t go to jail.

REV. REGINALD HOLMES: It’s a civil case, and they don’t go to jail. And again, that is what is grating on the family right now, because even though they’ve got the financial payment, they’re still feeling empty, because they’re feeling as though these officers were not punished for killing Marvin.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Susan Greene, these officers were never indicted?

SUSAN GREENE: No, in fact, our Denver district attorney, who prosecutes people for crimes that are so much less significant than this, just decided not to prosecute on this at all, which is part of what the Booker family is speaking out on. They’re criticizing the Denver DA. They’re criticizing a man who is supposed to be the independent monitor of the safety department, whose independence is highly questioned, because he never really said anything about this case at all.

AMY GOODMAN: And they found the city guilty of? And the officers?

SUSAN GREENE: Excessive force, supervisorial negligence, and a very key term here, which is "excessive zeal," OK, that these officers used zeal in killing Marvin Booker. I think what’s important here is the word "zeal," because it’s not just the zeal of those officers, it was the zeal of the city in pursuing this in court and not settling it—and not even speaking to the family, but deciding for four years to defend what was not defendable. I mean, if your viewers saw that video, and for the people listening to this on radio, that is a black-and-white video of sheriff’s deputies killing a man. And so, what they did is they decided to go this course, this four-year-long course, in which they prevaricated, in which they withheld evidence, in which several paid witnesses—who work for the city or who were paid $750 an hour to testify for the city—lied in defense of this murder.

AMY GOODMAN: The rules of—was it Governor Hickenlooper, who was mayor at the time?

SUSAN GREENE: Exactly, he was mayor, and he did what any decent human being and politician would do, which is, he met with the family, he expressed his remorse and grief over this killing. He didn’t express guilt or culpability on the part of the police, because obviously it was in litigation, but he interfaced with them, right? He acknowledged that a man was killed in our jail, and that deserved some recognition, right? Michael Hancock was running for mayor at that point. At some point, when the Denver—

AMY GOODMAN: He’s the second black mayor of Denver?

SUSAN GREENE: He is. He’s the second black mayor of Denver. Hickenlooper is white. He’s our governor. He’s running for re-election now. When Hancock was running and the DA decided not to prosecute, during Hancock’s campaign—and Hancock comes out of the black community, comes out of a community, a faith community, that was tied to Marvin Booker—said he was perfectly satisfied with this investigation. And what’s interesting is, if you sat through that trial, as Pastor Holmes did almost every day, and several people did almost every day, and you watched the details and the holes in that investigation, it’s really hard to see how you could have been satisfied with it.

AMY GOODMAN: Pastor Holmes, your response to how the city dealt with this, how Mayor Hancock dealt with this?

REV. REGINALD HOLMES: Well, we’re all disappointed. We’re very disappointed, because we have supported Michael, not just as mayor, but Michael came up through the ranks. He was a city councilperson, made promises to us because, in all fairness to him, many of these problems existed before he got there. But in coming into the office, he made some serious pledges that things would be different. And we’re extremely disappointed, because we don’t see that difference. We see things, in fact, getting worse. And I think it’s disingenuous of our community when we would hold white politicians accountable, but would somehow give black politicians a free ride, in that we don’t speak out, we don’t say anything, that somehow it becomes OK for things to continue as usual because the politician is black.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, this is all happening—the jury was weighing this, the trial was going on—in the midst of what happened in Missouri. Darren Wilson has not been indicted yet; there is a grand jury. Your thoughts, as you were dealing with both of these cases?

REV. REGINALD HOLMES: Well, my thoughts—

AMY GOODMAN: For the killing of 18-year-old unarmed teenager Mike Brown.

REV. REGINALD HOLMES: Right, in Ferguson. Yeah, my thoughts were that, you know, this is happening at an alarming rate all over this nation. And I think that it’s great that you all are here in Denver, because I think sometimes Denver gets this pristine view from the rest of the world, that it’s the Mile High City with snowcapped mountains, but this is a very corrupt administration. This is a very corrupt law enforcement. If you knew what they did in this trial, you would be appalled, from losing the taser, which would have given the community and would have given the court some idea of how long that taser was applied—

AMY GOODMAN: The taser that you see on the videotape.

REV. REGINALD HOLMES: The taser that was used to kill Marvin. I worked extensively, under Hickenlooper’s administration. I was a part of the campaign to build this new, state-of-the-art detention facility. They get into court and tell us that this brand new—it was brand new in 2010, only months old—this brand new, state-of-the-art facility—they came in court, when it was discovered that some of the videos, in Nixonian fashion, some of the videos had been darkened, that somehow they just gave out. "We knew the videos were a problem, but we just never got around to fixing them." Now, who does that? That’s the equivalent of you saying to me—you go buy a new car, and you drive it off the lot, and the headlights don’t work, but you don’t take it back and say, "Gosh, I need to get my headlights fixed, because I can’t really drive in the dark." So what happens is, is that they want to convince us that they’ve got this new, state-of-the-art facility, and the video cameras didn’t work, and they were perfectly OK with the cameras not working. And they used that, you know, conveniently, to be able to say—because those videos would have shown, without a shadow of a doubt, more clarity to the brutality that happened to Marvin.

AMY GOODMAN: And the taser is missing.

REV. REGINALD HOLMES: The taser is missing. The cameras don’t work in this brand new, multi-million-dollar facility, and no one makes a report. No one tells their superiors from the Sheriff’s Department exactly what’s going on with the cameras, with the tasers. The reports are incomplete. The sheriffs do not even investigate the incident from within. They turn it over to the Denver Police Department. And we’re just not very clear on how all that went down.

AMY GOODMAN: The chief of police, Robert White, is black?


AMY GOODMAN: White is black.

REV. REGINALD HOLMES: That’s right. The sheriff’s black. The mayor’s black. Manager of safety is black.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened to the sheriff here?

REV. REGINALD HOLMES: The sheriff was—supposedly, it was a mutual agreement between the sheriff and the mayor that he step down.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to get to a few other cases very quickly, because then we want to talk about what’s happening here in the state vis-à-vis national politics, though this certainly plays into national politics, the issue of police brutality major around the country. Another video The Colorado Independent obtained shows officers in the Denver jail’s infirmary using excessive force against prisoner Isaiah Moreno in 2013. After he was placed in solitary confinement for exhibiting suicidal behavior, footage shows Moreno pacing his cell, banging his head against the wall. So a team of eight officers then enter the cell. Two officers hold taser guns pointed at him, even though he’s sitting down and does not appear to threaten them. When they fire the tasers, he slumps to the floor. They then strap him into a restraint chair and leave him alone in the cell. An investigation by Denver’s Internal Affairs Bureau found the sergeant in charge violated use-of-force policies when he ordered the two deputies to taser Moreno. The report reads in part, quote, "Simply stated, there was no need to use the taser to gain compliance." And what happened next in that case, Susan Greene?

SUSAN GREENE: Well, he sat there. They left. This is a cell for a suicidal man, right? They put him in what’s essentially a straitjacket and a wheelchair, and they just left him there. That’s what happened. And they then come out and say he presented a threat. He was in a room, a single-cell room, with almost no clothes on. He had no way of hurting anybody, and they felt the need to taser him. I mean, this happened in a courtroom just months earlier, where a man was handcuffed, fully shackled, shackled at his feet, testifying before a judge, and out of the blue—and we had a video of this—the sheriff’s deputy—a sheriff’s deputy just slams him into a wall.

AMY GOODMAN: In the courtroom.

SUSAN GREENE: In the courtroom.

AMY GOODMAN: In front of the judge.

SUSAN GREENE: In front of the judge. And get this. This is really what I think is relevant in that case and in the Booker case, is their explanation for it was: "He was tripping, and we were just helping him up."

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about another case, this—that you’ve been reporting on. It’s the case of excessive use of force by the Denver Sheriff’s Department. And this is a clip from a video in 2012, a prisoner, Anthony Waller, in Judge Doris Burd’s courtroom. After the judge reads a list of charges to Waller, a sheriff’s deputy slams him into a wall when he responds.

JUDGE DORIS BURD: The investigation for false imprisonment, assault in the third degree, assault as a Class 2 felony, and a misdemeanor charge, as well, and possession of drug paraphernalia. Thank you, sir.

ANTHONY WALLER: Yes, ma’am, I’d like to object first. You know, if I’m under investigation, I thought the investigation came first, and then the arrest came.

JUDGE DORIS BURD: Right, but they have three days—

ANTHONY WALLER: Come on, man! Oh, man!

DEPUTY BRADY LOVINGIER: Get up! Get up! Get on your feet! You don’t turn on me! Boy, [inaudible]! Get on your feet! Get on your feet!

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what this video is all about, what happened to Anthony Waller?

SUSAN GREENE: Yeah, the sheriff just flipped out at him with no provocation.

AMY GOODMAN: In the courtroom.

SUSAN GREENE: In the courtroom, in front of a judge, while the judge essentially said—did say nothing, OK? And other sheriff’s deputies sat by and did nothing. Again, he was fully shackled, hands shackled, feet shackled, hand shackled behind his waist, and he was slammed into a wall. And the explanation, again, was that he tripped, and they were trying to help him up.

REV. REGINALD HOLMES: And without the diligence of The Colorado Independent uncovering these videos, the tragedy is, is that the community would have never known that these kinds of things were going on. And it’s out of control here in Denver. It’s out of control here. And we don’t want people to get the wrong impression of our city. It’s a great place to live. But we’ve got some serious issues with law enforcement. And I think it starts with our district attorney, starts with the mayor. It starts with this entire administration, because these things happen, they hide them, they don’t comment, they don’t say anything about it. And it has to stop. It has to stop.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there, but we certainly won’t continue to investigate—we will not stop continuing to investigate—


AMY GOODMAN: —and follow your investigations. I’ll end, again, with that first sentence, in summarizing, from Susan Greene’s piece on what happened this week, a federal jury delivering "what might be the costliest verdict yet in a Denver excessive force case. The $4.6 million jury award to Marvin Booker’s family came after jurors found five Denver sheriff deputies excessively restrained and subdued homeless street preacher Marvin Booker, failed to try to save his life and acted with [quote] 'evil motive' or intent when he died in July 2010 on the floor of the city jail booking room." This is Democracy Now!, We are broadcasting from Denver, Colorado. Our guests have been Pastor Reginald Holmes of the New Covenant Christian Church/Alpha and Omega Ministries, past president of the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance, and Susan Greene, editor of The Colorado Independent.

When we come back, this state can determine the state of the Congress in November. We’ll speak with a veteran political reporter about the gubernatorial race, the Senate race, House races and other issues. Stay with us.

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