by Verbena Lea
[dropcap]E[/dropcap]UREKA, Calif. — A jury delivered a resounding victory for a homeless man killed by Eureka police officers, awarding the total sum of $4,575,000 to his five-year-old daughter and father, the plaintiffs in a police misconduct civil rights case.
The jury in the court case ruled against the City of Eureka and Eureka Police Officers Adam Laird, Justin Winkle, and Gary Whitmer for the death of Martin Cotton II. Punitive damages were assessed against the three officers.
Cotton, a 26-year-old homeless man living on the streets, died of blunt-force head trauma. The plaintiffs, represented by attorneys Dale K. Galipo and Vicki I. Sarmiento of Los Angeles County, were Cotton’s daughter and his father.
The jury found that Officers Laird and Winkle used excessive force, and that the officers failed to provide medical care.
On August 9, 2007, Eureka Police Officers Winkle, Laird, Whitmer, and five others were involved in beating the unarmed Martin Cotton II to death. In broad daylight, officers pummeled Cotton’s head and body, then brought him to jail, failing to seek medical assistance.
Expert testimony presented by the plaintiffs established that timely medical care would have saved Cotton’s life. He died in the jail cell within two hours. A painful video of Cotton dying in jail was presented during the trial.
The fatal beating of Cotton occurred outside the Eureka Rescue Mission. Police were dispatched to the Mission for a disturbance involving Cotton. When they arrived, Cotton was no longer in the Mission and was alone and defenseless.
Laird and Winkle claim they ordered him to put his hands behind his back and he did not move. Both officers pepper-sprayed him. Officer Winkle kneed him in the ribs and forced him to the ground, where the officers beat him.
Cotton made no moves against the police and remained prone on the concrete. Officer Whitmer, the third officer on the scene, gave a running kick to Cotton, battered him with a baton, and pepper-sprayed him. More officers arrived and joined in the beating.
The trial of Siehna Cotton et al v. City of Eureka included police readily admitting that they sat on Cotton, forced his head onto the concrete throughout the beating, kicked him, hit him with a metal baton, kneed at his vulnerable organs, deployed pepper spray three times, and did not seek medical assistance for him.
The officers, however, denied hitting Cotton on the head, most likely because blunt-force head trauma was determined to be the cause of death.
Crucial testimony came from two civilian witnesses who bravely reported that they had indeed seen at least Officer Winkle pounding on Cotton’s skull multiple times on the concrete. One witness said he heard “fist-to-skull” and “bone-on-bone” noises from those head strikes.
The verdict was announced on Sept. 23, 2011, after a two-week trial in Federal Court in Oakland. Siehna Cotton, his daughter, was awarded $1,250,000 for the pain her father suffered and $2,750,000 for wrongful death damages. Marty Cotton Sr. was awarded $500,000, which required plaintiffs to show that the officers’ actions “shocked the conscience.”
The jury also found that the police officers acted with “malice, oppression, or reckless disregard” to the decedent’s or plaintiffs’ rights, and assessed punitive damages of $30,000 from Officer Winkle, $30,000 from Officer Laird, and $15,000 from Officer Whitmer.
Cotton was one of many people killed by police in the Humboldt region from the fall of 2005 to the fall of 2007. Attorney Vicki Sarmiento said she hopes the verdict sends shock waves to other officers who may consider committing such atrocities. “We don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” she said. “We as a community, we as a society, cannot tolerate it.”
Sarmiento said of the victory, “The jury’s decision showed respect for Martin Cotton’s life. They acknowledge the wrong that occurred and acknowledge that Martin’s life had value. The issue of human dignity and humanity is what this is about, and everyone has a right to have that.”
Verbena Lea is a member of Redwood Curtain CopWatch. To visit their click here