By Redwood Curtain CopWatch
Eureka, CA: A jury delivered a resounding victory for plaintiffs in a police misconduct civil rights case by awarding the total sum of $4,575,000 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. Mr. Cotton, a 26 year-old 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 Mr. Cotton’s 5 year-old daughter and his father. The jury found that Officers Laird and Winkle used excessive force, and that all three officers failed to provide medical care.
On August 9th, 2007, Eureka police officers Winkle, Laird, Whitmer, and five others were involved in beating an unarmed Martin Cotton II to death. In broad daylight, officers pummeled Mr. Cotton’s head and body, then brought Mr. Cotton to jail, failing to seek medical assistance for him. Expert testimony presented by the plaintiffs established that timely medical care would have saved Mr. Cotton’s life. Mr. Cotton died in the jail cell within two hours. Painful video of Mr. Cotton dying in jail was presented during the trial.
The fatal beating of Mr. Cotton occurred outside the Eureka Rescue Mission. Police were dispatched to the Rescue Mission for a disturbance involving Mr. Cotton. When they arrived, Mr. Cotton was no longer in the Rescue 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. Mr. 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 Mr. 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 they they sat on Mr. 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 afterward. The officers, however, denied hitting Mr. Cotton in the head, most likely because blunt force head trauma was determined as 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 Mr. Cotton’s skull multiple times on the concrete. One witness said he heard “fist-to-skull”, “bone-on-bone” from those head strikes.
The verdict was announced September 23, 2011 after a two week trial and 7 hours of jury deliberation in Federal Court in Oakland. Siehna Cotton 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 officers acted with “malice, oppression, or reckless disregard” to the decedent’s or plaintiffs’ rights, and assessed punitive damages: $30,000 from officer Winkle, $30,000 from officer Laird, and $15,000 from officer Whitmer.
Mr. Cotton was only one of many people killed at the hands of police in the Humboldt region from fall 2005 to fall 2007. Attorney Vicki Sarmiento hopes the verdict sends shockwaves to other officers who may consider committing such atrocities in the future. “We don’t want this to happen to anyone else. We as a community, we as a society, cannot tolerate it.” Ms. Sarmiento speaks 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 that everyone has a right to have that.”