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Jail beating: City says its possible liability tops out at $100K in homeless victim case

Update: Yesterday, we reported about a jury award of $40,000 to Robert Duran, a homeless man beaten bloody at Denver jail -- as well as the prospect that the city might decide against indemnifying the ex-deputy deemed responsible. As we noted, Denver City Attorney Doug Friednash wasn't available immediately after the decision. But he's since reached out to Westword and says that while no decisions have been made yet, the city won't be liable for nearly as much cash as Duran's attorney suggests -- $100,000 at most.

As we've reported, Duran was in custody circa March 2009 when, according to attorney David Lane, Deputy Stephen Koehler aggressively shoved him into the back of an elevator, then reacted to Duran's complaints a short time later by ramming him into a door jamb and stomping on his face.

Koehler was fired the following year after statements he made about the incident didn't match up with video taken at the scene -- footage that Lane credits with convincing the jury to rule in Duran's favor.

Doug Friednash.
Doug Friednash.

Earlier this week, before the jury weighed in, Friednash told the Denver Post that any decision about indemnifying Koehler was premature. Afterward, Lane interpreted that as meaning the city might leave it to the deputy to pick up the tab not only for the aforementioned $40,000, but also legal fees that he estimates at between $150,000-$200,000.

But rather than complaining about potentially being stiffed, Lane said he would gladly forgo the money if the city established a policy against paying off for officers convicted of civil-rights violations. His theory: If cops realize they could lose their houses for brutality, most of them might stop committing such acts.

In a statement provided to Westword, Friednash doesn't comment about a policy shift in this regard. Instead, he focuses on the amount of money involved, which he characterizes as considerably less than Lane's estimate.

"Mr. Duran's judgment is against former Deputy Sheriff Steven Koehler, not the City of Denver," Friednash writes. "Mr. Koehler was terminated by the City of Denver, and Denver was dismissed as a defendant in this lawsuit last year.

"Colorado law requires the City to indemnify its officers for any judgment entered against them for torts, but only when those torts are committed within the scope of their employment," he goes on. "In this case, that potential indemnification is limited to $100,000.

"The question of whether the City will provide such indemnification to Mr. Koehler is premature," he reiterates. "Mr. Koehler is represented by outside counsel, not the City Attorney's Office. Certain post-trial motions have to be decided before a judgment is entered and Mr. Koehler still has the right to appeal this decision. The City will not make any decisions regarding indemnification until the appropriate time."

Continue for our previous coverage of the Robert Duran beating and judgment.

Original post, 10:05 a.m. July 25: Although a jury has awarded homeless Denver resident Robert Duran $40,000 for being beaten bloody by a guard at city jail, it's not clear to Duran's attorney, David Lane, that the city will pay the fine and attendant legal fees or leave that to the deputy who did the damage. Lane wants Duran to be paid, but he'd be fine taking a six-figure loss if Denver decides that, now and in the future, it won't indemnify civil-rights violators. Why? He thinks the prospect of law enforcers personally bearing costs might deter more brutality.

Here's how Lane details the incident, which took place in March 2009 and involved then-Deputy Stephen Koehler.

"I told the jury the only way this case could have possibly come to light is because videotapes exist of everything that happened in the jail," Lane says. "Normally, if it's the word of a homeless prisoner versus a deputy, the deputy wins that battle every single time. But the jury saw what happened.

"There's no audio on the tapes, just video," Lane continues; he notes that four tapes shot from various angles were screened for the jury. "The first tape shows Duran leaving a cell to go get processed, and he gets into an elevator being operated by Deputy Koehler. It's March, and Duran realizes he's left his shirt in his cell. He claims he's asking Koehler if he can go back and get his shirt, but Koehler won't let him do it. And the next tape shows Koehler violently shoving Duran into the elevator.

"The deputy claimed that Duran was making aggressive hand gestures and demanding a sack lunch. But the video shows that Duran's hands were tucked under his arms in a shivering position the entire time."

After being shoved, Lane maintains, "Duran flew into the elevator and hit the back wall. At that point, Duran turned around and balled up his fists and started jumping up and down in the elevator, yelling at Koehler. But then Koehler points at Duran and says something, and Duran calms down while three other inmates get on the elevator."

As Lane explains, a cage door separated the inmates from Koehler. After it closed and the elevator started moving, Duran can be seen "pacing back and forth and running his mouth. Koehler said he threatened to kill him, but Duran said no, he was just cursing and protesting the fact that he'd been shoved for no good reason."

Shortly thereafter, the elevator arrived at the fourth floor of the jail. When its exterior doors opened, Lane says, "Koehler walks across the hall, gets some rubber gloves, puts them on and then comes walking very aggressively back to the cage. He slides open the cage door as Duran has his hands up, in surrender mode, and forcefully grabs him by the throat, pulls him out of the elevator by the throat and the scruff of the neck and rams his head into a door jamb.

"Duran goes down, and two deputies who don't know what's going on jump in to assist Koehler. Duran doesn't remember what happened next, but the video shows them dragging him into a vestibule area. There's blood everywhere -- all over Duran's face and his torso, since he's not wearing a shirt. He's handcuffed behind his back in the vestibule and is struggling to his feet when Koehler comes over. And Koehler's own words were, 'I stomped him in the face.'"

Continue for more about the Robert Duran verdict.

According to Lane, many of Koeler's initial claims about what happened -- "He said things like, 'When I ordered him off the elevator, he refused my order and took a fighting stance'" -- were contradicted by the video. As such, Koehler was fired in 2010 by then-Manager of Safety Mary Malatesta. But instead of agreeing to settle the case brought by Lane on Duran's behalf, the city chose to litigate it -- and lost.

In most instances, that would mean Denver would be on the hook for the $40,000 jury award and Lane's legal fees, which he estimates at between $150,000 and $200,000. But on Monday, as reported by the Denver Post, City Attorney Doug Friednash said it would be premature to talk about whether or not Denver would pick up the various tabs. "No decision on that issue has been made," the paper quotes him as saying -- and he wasn't available for comment after the jury found in favor of Duran.

Some attorneys would be angered by such uncertainty, but not Lane.

"I think if Denver stopped writing checks for cops who get tagged by juries for civil-rights violations, and if Denver cops knew that their houses were at risk if they beat somebody up, that would do more to stop police brutality in Denver than anything else that could possibly happen," he says. "So as a civil-rights lawyer, I would love to see Denver stop indemnifying the cops. I think it would reduce police brutality radically."

If that happens, of course, there's no guarantee Koehler can come up with the money owed to Duran -- and Lane is sensitive to the issue.

"I would love to see my client get paid," he stresses. "He gets all $40,000 of those damages; I'm not taking any of those. And he's a homeless guy who's had it really rough, so I want to see him get paid. And I would be happy not to get paid if Denver would make a policy of no more indemnification for police officers who get tagged as civil-rights violators. I'd forgo my fee if Denver would adapt that policy. I may not ever see a nickel here, but at least it'll change the practice on the streets."

Whatever happens, Denver's already on the hook for its own costs in the case, which Lane sees as having been unnecessary from the jump. "Denver refused any offers to settle this case, which forced our hands to go to trial. Friednash is basically trying to put down a hard line: 'We're not going to settle very many cases.' And this is an example of a case that they could have settled years ago for under $50,000. But now it could cost taxpayers a quarter of a million dollars.... It's penny wise but pound foolish."

In the meantime, Lane's glad that the jury sided with Duran -- and he knows his client was pleased as well. "Last night," he says, "I suspect a large group of homeless men had a big party under a viaduct somewhere in Denver."

More from our News archive: "Video: Bill Dau beating an example of police brutality, lawyer says."