Ferguson Police Cleared on Pre-Michael Brown Beating

ST. LOUIS (CN) – Well before the late Michael Brown made Ferguson, Missouri, a national symbol for excessive police force, Henry Davis sued three Ferguson police officers for beating him while handcuffed. Now the Eighth Circuit has sided with the officers.

Ferguson police arrested Davis in the early morning hours of Sept. 20, 2009, for speeding and suspected drunken driving. Officers said he was going more than 100 mph, his vehicle smelled of alcohol and he refused to take a breathalyzer.

Davis, who now lives in Mississippi, said it was raining hard that night and he had pulled off the road in Ferguson after missing his exit. He said he was not asked to take a sobriety test and was told he was being arrested on outstanding warrants.

It is undisputed that a short, bloody fight ensued as officers put Davis in a cell, but the parties disagree about whether Davis was combative. Davis says he merely raised his arms over his head to protect himself.

He was treated in an emergency room for a broken nose and a scalp laceration. Court filings state that he was released back to Ferguson’s custody without treatment after he was combative with medical staff.

Davis sued Ferguson and three police officers in 2010. He claimed he was not only beaten while handcuffed, but charged with destruction of property for bleeding on the officers’ uniforms.

The officers claimed that Davis became combative about being jailed and lashed out first. They denied beating him while handcuffed.

On the road to trial, Ferguson made nationwide headlines when Darren Wilson, a white police officer for the city, shot and killed an unarmed Michael Brown, who was black, on Aug. 9, 2014.

In 2016, a year after the U.S. Department of Justice cleared Wilson of civil-rights violations with regard to Brown’s shooting, a federal jury cleared the officers who beat Davis.

Davis’ appeal to the Eighth Circuit had several points: the court’s denial of his Batson challenge (peremptory challenge in jury selection), the admission of his hospital records, exclusion of records he claimed showed one of the officers to be racist, and Ferguson’s failure to keep the jail surveillance tapes of the incident.

Davis’ counsel entered a Batson challenge after Ferguson attorneys struck the lone prospective black juror during the jury selection process. A Batson challenge is an objection to the validity of a peremptory challenge, on grounds that the other party used it to exclude a potential juror based on race, ethnicity or sex.

“He made a prima facie showing that this strike was racially motivated because he is African-American and all of the officers are Caucasian,” the June 9 opinion in the case states. “The officers offered a race-neutral rationale that the district court found credible: the venireperson worked as a security officer in a nursing home and the officers’ attorney stated that he was concerned ‘she would confuse or compare her use of force with the use of force that’s appropriate in this case.’”

Crediting the rationale of the Ferguson officers, a three-judge panel nixed Davis’ claim that admission of his hospital records constituted improper character evidence and impermissible hearsay. Davis also failed to sway the panel that the trial court erred in not allowing racist emails received by Ferguson police Sgt. William J. Mudd.

“The district court addressed the relevance and risk of prejudice posed by admitting the emails,”U.S. Circuit Judge Duane Benton wrote for the court. “It questioned their relevance because Mudd was not present for the alleged use of excessive force — his only involvement was the failure to preserve the video recording of the altercation after the fact. Though Mudd’s bias might be relevant to the credibility of his excuse for not preserving the correct video, the district court noted that the excessive force, not the retention of potential evidence, was the central trial issue.”

The circuit also found credible Mudd’s reason why the tape wasn’t preserved: that he was given the wrong date to preserve. Chief U.S. Judge William Jay Riley and U.S. Judge James B. Loken concurred.

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