Facts Support Verdict Against Eureka Cops | Courthouse News Service
Tuesday, November 28, 2023
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Facts Support Verdict Against Eureka Cops

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) - Northern California's city of Eureka owes $4.5 million to the family of a man beaten to death by nunchaku-wielding police officers, a federal judge ruled.

After Martin Cotton II died from his injuries after an August 2007 altercation with Eureka police, Cotton's daughter and father filed suit against Eureka and the three officers involved in the fight, Justin Winkle, Adam Laird and Gary Whitmer. In 2011, a jury awarded the Cottons $4,575,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.

In her ruling, U.S. District Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong recounted the chilling brutality of the officers, who delivered "eight to nine full-force knee strikes to the right and left sides of the decedent's body and repeatedly used both hands to shove the decedent's head onto the cement sidewalk," according to the ruling.

Witnesses described Winkle and other officers using "clenched hammer fists" to strike Cotton, and Laird testified at trial that he hit the man, who was laid out on the sidewalk, with his metal baton and kicked him several times. Laird also sprayed Cotton "with pepper spray only seven inches from his face," the judge wrote.

After handcuffing Cotton and placing a spit mask on him, Officer Jones used nunchakus to further subdue the man. At the trial, witness testified that Cotton did not resist the officers, and the officers conceded under oath that he did not use force against them, threaten them or attempt to flee, the judge noted.

"Despite the significant amount of force applied by Officers Laird, Winkle and Whitmer against the decedent, they failed to call for an ambulance, take him to the hospital or otherwise seek any medical attention for him. Instead, they arrested the decedent and took him directly to the Humboldt County Correctional Facility sally port," Armstrong wrote.

At trial, the defendants showed video surveillance that showed the officers escorting Cotton, who appeared to have difficulty standing, directly into a sobering cell.

"Footage taken from inside the sobering cell shows the decedent rolling around, grasping his head, and in apparent distress," she wrote. "Plaintiff's expert, Harry Bonnell, M.D., testified that the decedent's behavior was indicative of a head injury, and that in observing the video, he was 'watching a man die.'"

The coroner's autopsy later concluded that Cotton died of "acute subdural hematoma (i.e. pooling of blood on the surface of the brain) caused by blunt force trauma," according the ruling. The coroner also noted bruising throughout the man's body and internal bleeding, the ruling said.

Judge Armstrong refused to stay the judgment, or to grant the defendants judgment as a matter of law or a new trial.

Armstrong rejected claims that the Cottons' attorney engaged in misconduct during opening statements by referring to the officers' use of a spit mask and martial arts nunchakus. In closing arguments, the lawyer also mentioned that there was "another 'trial'" of an ongoing police brutality case in Fullerton, Calif., and he made the inflammatory statement that the officers "beat" the decedent. The defendants also took issue with a witness's reference to the notorious 1991 death of Rodney King by police brutality. None of the arguments were availing.

"Defendants completely mischaracterize the record," Armstrong wrote. "In addition, none of the alleged misconduct, whether considered individually or in aggregate, persuades the court that a new trial is either necessary or appropriate."

Other challenges that failed to sway the court claimed that the jury should not have heard evidence of Cotton's pain and suffering, and that the jury should have been instructed to not consider the references to nunchukus and the spit mask.

"Even if Plaintiffs' counsel's brief mention of the nunchukus and spit mask were improper - which it was not - defendants have failed to show any prejudice, let alone prejudice sufficient to warrant a new trial," Armstrong wrote.

"Plaintiffs' counsel made no mention of these items in their closing argument, and never argued to the jury that the use of the nunchukus by Officer Jones and application of the spit mask by Officer Watson were unreasonable or excessive. If anything, it was Defendants who insisted on highlighting this matter at trial. ... Had defense counsel reviewed the trial transcript, instead of relying on their flawed recollection of the trial proceedings, they would have realized this. At bottom, any prejudice resulting from references to the spit mask and nunchukus was of Defendants' own making."

Since the jury did not find Officer Whitmer liable on the excessive force claims, the defendants argued that he should have been cleared of the deliberate-indifference claim, as well. Armstrong disagreed.

"There was more than ample evidence and testimony presented at trial for the jury to find Officer Whitmer liable on plaintiffs' deliberate indifference claim," he wrote.

"Notably, Officer Whitmer conceded that a person subjected to the amount of force which the officers had used on decedent may require medical attention beyond that which could be provided at [Humboldt County Correctional Facility] and that he had offered to follow Officer Laird in case he wanted to take the Decedent to the hospital," Armstrong added. "From this and other evidence presented at trial, the jury could easily find that Officer Whitmer knew of, but ignored, the Decedent's serious medical needs."

Though the defendants wanted to limit the bond pending appeal to $75,000, Armstrong refused, noting that their insurance companies have not identified coverage issues.

If the defendants appeal, they must file a bond of $5.7 million, the court ruled.

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