Park County beats $6 million civil suit
DENVER – Thanks to one revised line in a dispatch transcript, the Park County Sheriff’s Office survived a $6 million federal civil rights lawsuit against a former deputy.Plaintiff John Gates alleged that on June 8, 2001, following his DUI arrest, former Deputy Carl Sharp assaulted him with a pistol butt – knocking him out and lacerating his forehead nearly to the bone. Sharp claimed that Gates intentionally struck his head on the vehicle’s security screen, threatened to blame it on him – and made good on the threat. The jury verdict came down Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Denver.All forensic testimony during Gates’ March 2002 trial for DUI, resisting arrest, obstructing an officer and criminal mischief supported Gates’ claim. Sharp’s testimony regarding his location at a critical time contradicted a transcript of the dispatch tape from the night of Gates’ arrest. This damaged his credibility enough that the jury returned a verdict in only 45 minutes following a four-day trial, finding Gates not guilty on all charges.That apparent contradiction between physical evidence and an officer’s testimony gave Gates’ subsequent civil rights claim needed weight to reach federal court last week. Gates sought $6 million alleging excessive force and malicious prosecution. The jury never got to see the transcript used in his criminal trial.Jonathan Cross, Sharp’s attorney, exhibited a corrected transcript. Prepared by Park County Sheriff’s Office lead dispatcher Maria Mitchell, the new transcript attributed the line to another officer. Mitchell testified that with five years in dispatch, she clearly recognized the voice on the tape. That officer also testified that the voice was his. This placed Sharp in a different location, eliminating the contradiction in his testimony. The jury knew of the earlier transcript, and the specific changes, but the tape itself was the evidence. Gates’ Attorney, E. Ronald Beeks, could not prove his case by a preponderance of the evidence without that contradiction. In addition, he saw all of his witnesses reduced to uncertainty under Cross’s aggressive cross-examination – including that of his client.Beeks still had the best forensic testimony in the trial. Dr. Marc Krouse, a forensic pathologist, testified in even more detail than in the criminal trial. He again affirmed that nothing in the vehicle seemed as likely to cause Gates’ eight-millimeter deep injury as the protruding ammo magazine tip on Sharp’s weapon. The jury saw Krouse place the edge of that magazine next to Gates’ 3.5 centimeter scar. It matched within one millimeter. Instead of an equivalently qualified forensic expert, Cross offered Dr. John Bernton. Qualified only as an expert in internal and occupational medicine, he primarily refuted Gates’ claims that certain physical complaints resulted from the night of his arrest. Defense witnesses, primarily deputies, all testified to additional details than before, each of these reinforcing weak points from the criminal trial. Deputy District Attorney David M. Thorson testified of his reasons for choosing to prosecute Gate’s case, and not to prosecute Sharp. When Beeks cross-examined the attorney he’d previously faced in court, Thorson acknowledged that his decisions were based on information provided by the sheriff’s office.Beeks’ closing arguments covered the strength of his forensic evidence and the additions and changes in officer testimony since the first trial. Cross almost exclusively attacked Gates’ credibility, using only about five of 40 minutes to address physical evidence.After two-and-a-half hours deliberation the jury rendered a verdict that the preponderance of the evidence did not prove Gates’ claims, finding for Carl Sharp. This finding leaves Gates owing Park County’s insurance pool the court costs and attorney’s fees. The court granted the defense 30 days to submit this bill. Gates is considering an appeal.
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