Littwin: Michael Marshall didn’t have to die |

Littwin: Michael Marshall didn’t have to die

Mike Littwin
Fair and unbalanced

Everything, sadly, went just as expected. Nobody was charged in the jailhouse death of Michael Lee Marshall, a mentally ill man arrested for trespassing and held on a $100 bond. In Mitch Morrissey’s tenure as Denver DA, no one ever gets charged in these cases. It’s the surest bet in town.

And no less surprising, when the video was finally released to the family, the story it told offered up many more questions than answers.

The biggest question, of course, is this: Why did Michael Lee Marshall have to die?

The easy answer is that he didn’t have to die, and, given that he died anyway, that something, after all this time, is still terribly wrong with the city jail culture.

Other questions: How many failures, how many recorded beatings, how many fired-but-reinstated deputies, how many deaths, how many refused to charge before something dramatic does change?

And there’s this: When will Mayor Michael Hancock get out in front of this issue instead of always — and this time the line actually works — leading from behind?

If you watch the video, there’s nothing in it particularly violent, except for the ultimate violence that is death. After an autopsy, the Denver medical examiner called Marshall’s death a homicide, and what is striking, and awful, about the video is how many people watched Marshall slowly die and seemed as if they hadn’t noticed.

Was it negligence, lack of training, jailhouse culture?

Marshall, we’re told, had been acting erratically. He was a schizophrenic who reportedly had refused to take his meds. You can ask if there’s not a better, safer way to treat a schizophrenic who was “ranting” after his arrest for trespassing than to put him in a lockup — even in a special lockup — but don’t expect a good answer. The intersection of mental health and criminal justice is an oft-raised issue — but not one that anyone is doing much about.

Marshall was taken to a hallway where he approached a deputy, who shoved him back, and Marshall fell. At which time three deputies, then four, eventually five, fell onto him to restrain him. Marshall didn’t seem to be putting up any kind of fight, but it’s not clear what constitutes resistance. It’s even less clear why deputies didn’t worry that they might be endangering Marshall. What is clear, though, is that Marshall was an ill, frail, undernourished-looking prisoner being restrained by a number of well-nourished deputies.

Finally, they put a “spit cloth” on Marshall and moved him to a restraining chair. Marshall looks notably limp at that point, even as they strapped him in. Why didn’t anyone notice that? And in a few minutes, they’re pulling off the straps, the medical people are hard at work, and it’s clear something is very wrong. They’re shown wiping vomit from Marshall’s mouth — the same vomit he had apparently choked on. He was taken to Denver Health, where nine days later his family gave up on life support and Marshall, the homeless, schizophrenic trespasser in jail on a $100 bond, was officially dead.

Because this is not a new story and because Mayor Hancock can never seem to get ahead of the old story and because black lives matter is more than a slogan, people demanded answers, which they would get, but not good ones.

Black Lives Matter activists interrupted the Martin Luther King Day Marade to demand justice. It was a movement that, I’m guessing, King would have embraced. There were speeches and, finally, action. But what kind of action?

Black pastors had already met with Hancock to demand the release of the video, particularly given the long delay in releasing the Marvin Booker video and the fallout over the coverup before the release in Chicago of a video showing police shooting Laquan McDonald. At the meeting, Hancock apparently told the pastors that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was a friend and that “I feel for Mayor Emanuel.”

Cultures can be difficult to change, jailhouse culture not the least among them. But why hasn’t Hancock taken the lead here?

And is there anyone else in America who feels the need to express his sympathy for Rahm Emanuel?

It was a year ago when the jury came back with $4.65 million in damages in the Marvin Booker death, in which, of course, no deputies were charged. The city ended up paying $6 million. The payment, one of several large judgments against the city in similar cases, was more than just money that the city could have put to some use. It was a demand that something must be done and quickly.

And then there was the death of Michael Lee Marshall. I don’t know if the deputies should have been charged, only that they never are. But it was obvious from watching the video that a lot of big men pinned a frail man to the floor who seemed to present no danger to anyone and that he never recovered. You can be outraged. You can be saddened. You can get serious about making sure it doesn’t happen again.

Mike Littwin writes a column for the Colorado Independent.

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