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Jimma Reat: Ruling in botched 911 call case opens door to federal civil rights trial

Last September, the family of Jimma Reat, a Sudanese immigrant who was killed after a 911 operator told him and his companions to return to Denver after they'd escaped a racially motivated attack, filed suit against the City of Denver. Since then, a judge issued a ruling that limited the scope of the complaint. But now, another judge has determined that the circumstances that led to Reat's death sufficiently shock the conscience that the matter is back on track for a potential federal civil rights trial. See photos, documents and more below.

Early on April 1, 2012, as we've reported, Reat and two of his brothers, Changkuoth Pal and Ran Pal, as well as Joseph Kolong, were in a vehicle near the intersection of 10th and Sheridan when a Jeep Cherokee pulled up alongside their car. The Jeep's male occupants began "harassing and attempting to injure" the four young men, according to the lawsuit, on view here.

The men in the Jeep are said to have called Reat and friends "niggers" while throwing beer bottles and what's described as "bottle rockets" at them. The back window of Reat's car was shattered in the altercation, showering the occupants with broken glass. In addition, one of the Jeep's occupants brandished a handgun.

At that point, the suit's narrative continues, Ran Pal phoned 911 to report the crime and get emergency police and medical assistance. The call was answered by Juan Jesus Rodriguez, who's listed as a defendant in the case along with the City and County of Denver. During the conversation, the victims were able to elude the men in the Jeep and find relative safety at an apartment building's parking lot in Wheat Ridge, approximately seven and a half blocks west of Denver's city limits -- and Ran Pal is said to have told the operator that he was too unsettled by the occurrence to feel comfortable driving.

Another photo of Jimma Reat.
Another photo of Jimma Reat.

Nonetheless, Rodriguez told them they needed to drive back to Denver in order to rendezvous with DPD officers, and though wary, they eventually acquiesced. But the complaint maintains that the operator didn't immediately send police to the location within Denver limits (the delay is estimated at seven minutes), nor did he create an incident report. Moreover, the suit says, he told the victims that once they had moved their car to a suitable spot, they should make themselves prominent to officers by turning on their hazard lights and leaving them flashing.

Rodriguez was still on the phone with Ran Pal when the car came to a stop in the vicinity of West 29th and Sheridan -- at which point the Jeep Cherokee rematerialized and its occupants opened fire. Jimma Reat died at the scene in Ran Pal's arms, having been shot in the back.

These facts are not in dispute. Nonetheless, as synopsized in a new ruling by a United States District Court Judge Robert Blackburn, Magistrate Judge Michael Hegarty, the first jurist to hear the case, determined that the events weren't sufficiently "shocking to the conscience" to meet the requirements of the "state-created danger" test -- one that requires "a high level of outrageousness."

While this may sound like mere semantics to a layman, the magistrate judge's conclusion had a practical, and negative, impact on the case, notes attorney John Holland, who is representing the Reat family in conjunction with colleagues Erica Grossman and Anna Holland Edwards. Under the previous ruling, Holland says, the case would have been "limited to willful, wanton, reckless state-law claims only."

That was unacceptable to Reat's attorneys. In Holland's words, "This case presents a classic example of a danger creating due-process violation by a public employee. And we felt strongly that it should be proceeding in federal court to redress a due-process-violating fatality claim."

Hence, the trip to U.S. District Court -- and yesterday, Judge Blackburn issued a ruling that gave the complaint new federal life.

Continue for more about the latest ruling in the JImma Reat lawsuit, including photos, videos, documents and more.

Blackburn's ruling is multi-faceted, complex and best understood when analyzed as a whole; the entire document is below. But in summary, he writes that "the relevant question for present purposes is whether a reasonable state official would have known that reckless, conscience-shocking conduct that altered the status quo and placed a [plaintiff] at substantial risk of serious, immediate and proximate harm was unconstitutional."

His conclusion? "Based on the the facts alleged in the First Amended Complaint I find that this standard is met here. Through his affirmative acts, Mr. Rodriguez sent plaintiffs from a position of relative safety back into the zone of danger from which they had escaped just minutes before. Aware that the assailants had been headed northbound on Sheridan Boulevard after the initial attack, Mr. Rodriguez instructed plaintiffs to stop their car at a major intersection less than 20 blocks north and make themselves even more conspicuous at a time of night when there was unlikely to be much other traffic on the road in any event. Most glaringly, knowing that the driver was injured and that the assailants had a gun, he failed to send help to the scene until after the tragedy was fait accompli."

After Blackburn's ruling was released, Holland and company put out a statement that we've included in its entirety below. But here's the opening section:

We and the family of Jimma Reat are gratified that Federal Judge Robert Blackburn has recognized the egregious and community shocking nature of Denver's 911 Operator affirmative actions that night in creating a fatal danger for him that could also have killed his brothers and cousin.

These kinds of cases can be difficult. Not all of them have the facts required to shock the judicial conscience and state a due process constitutional claim for the arbitrary confiscating of life, liberty, family and bodily integrity by a government employee.

But, as the Court has now found from the 911 tape itself, this case contains the requisite evidence to state this claim.

In conversation, Holland says simply that "this is a federal civil rights claim, and the federal civil rights claim has now been recognized."

What comes next? "I don't want to predict what the defendants will do," Holland allows. "But hopefully the case will begin to precede into discovery and the normal judicial process."

Of course, Denver may be able to avoid this laborious process by settling the case -- and Holland sounds open to the notion.

"This happened on Denver's watch," he points out, "and we'll litigate until the city takes responsibility for its worker's actions, or until a jury rules.

"This case should not go to trial," he adds. "We all know what happened."

And what happened was undeniably tragic. Here's Blackburn's ruling and the full attorneys statement, followed by our previous coverage, which includes photos, videos and the original lawsuit.

Jimma Reat Order

Jimma Reat Attorneys Comment

Continue for our previous coverage of the Jimma Reat lawsuit, including photos, videos and documents.

Original post, 1:34 p.m. September 24, 2012: Earlier this year, we told you about the tragic death of Jimma Reat, a Sudanese immigrant who was killed after a 911 operator told him and his companions to return to Denver after escaping a racially motivated attack. Now, his estate, among others, is suing the city over the incident, alleging that the call led to a "classic example of a 'snake pit' of danger"; see the complete complaint below. But attorneys hope negotiations with Denver can prevent a jury trial.

The complaint was filed by Holland, Holland Edwards & Grossman, a firm whose namesakes are John Holland, Erica Grossman and Anna Holland Edwards. Note that John Holland worked with Alex Landau, whose beating by Denver police resulted in a $795,000 settlement.

As the complaint notes, Reat was 25 at the time of his death. He's described as a hard worker with great life prospects who worked to help support his parents -- and he's said to have been beloved in his community. He and his brother, Ran Pal, scored three consecutive three-point field goals to help win the 2007 state basketball championship for Lincoln High School. Reat was a refugee from what is now South Sudan; he came to the United States from a refugee camp in Ethiopia after escaping his native country with his family.

This move didn't guarantee safety for Reat's family and loved ones. At around 3 a.m. the day after Christmas, as we've reported, Youn Malual, a Sudanese immigrant and father of five whom Reat considered an uncle, was murdered by an unknown assailant near his apartment building at Mississippi and South Xenia in Arapahoe County.

In January, Bruce Williamson, a bureau chief with the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office, told us that the lack of progress in the case was frustrating. "We really want to get this one going," he said. "From everything we know, he was an upstanding, hardworking man just trying to care for his family. And to be gunned down the way he was...."

The frustration continues: There have been no arrests in Youn Malual's murder to date -- and the same is true of Reat's tragic slaying, which is described in the "Statement of Facts" portion of the document.

Early on April 1, 2012, the narrative says, Reat and two of his brothers, Changkuoth Pal and Ran Pal, as well as Joseph Kolong, were in a vehicle near the intersection of 10th and Sheridan when a Jeep Cherokee pulled up alongside their car. The Jeep's male occupants began "harassing and attempting to injure" the four young men.

The men in the Jeep are said to have called Reat and friends "niggers" while throwing beer bottles and what's described as "bottle rockets" at them. The back window of Reat's car was shattered in the altercation, showering the occupants with broken glass. In addition, one of the Jeep's occupants brandished a handgun.

At that point, the statement continues, Ran Pal phoned 911 to report the crime and get emergency police and medical assistance. The call was answered by Juan Jesus Rodriguez, who's listed as a defendant in the case, along with the City and County of Denver. During the conversation, the victims were able to elude the men in the Jeep and find relative safety at an apartment building's parking lot in Wheat Ridge, approximately seven and a half blocks west of Denver's city limits -- and Ran Pal is said to have told the operator that he was too shocked by the occurrence to feel comfortable driving.

Continue to read more about the tragic death of Jimma Reat and to see additional photos and the lawsuit.

A map showing the distance between the apartment building and the intersection where gunfire rang out.
A map showing the distance between the apartment building and the intersection where gunfire rang out.

Nonetheless, the suit alleges, Rodriguez told them they needed to drive back to Denver.

Ran Pal questioned these instructions, but according to the suit, Rodriguez said that if they didn't return to Denver proper, they "would not be allowed to make a report of the criminal violence that had been visited upon them and would not receive emergency protective or medical services."

In the end, Ran Pal and his companions acquiesced. But the complaint maintains that Rodriguez didn't immediately send police to the location within Denver limits (the delay is estimated at seven minutes), nor did he create an incident report. Moreover, the suit says, he told the victims that once they had moved their car to a suitable spot, they should make themselves prominent to officers by turning on their hazard lights and leaving them flashing.

Rodriguez was still on the phone with Ran Pal when the car came to a stop in the vicinity of West 29th and Sheridan -- at which point the Jeep Cherokee rematerialized and its occupants opened fire. Jimma Reat died at the scene in Ran Pal's arms, having been shot in the back.

As pointed out in the narrative, Rodriguez was fired from his position as Emergency Communications Operator in mid-May, with Carl Simpson, representing the city, confirming that he'd put Reat and the others in danger by his actions. He wrote that Rodriguez "showed a blatant disregard for the caller's health in [his[ question to have the caller return to Denver city limits...."

Nonetheless, the lawsuit posits a racial component to the incident, arguing that because Rodriguez knew the victims were black people from the description of what happened and Ran Pal's pronounced African accent, he made a "race-based discriminatory decision to selectively deny immediate police protective services...because of their known status as disfavored minorities." Instead, the complaint says, he "stereotypically profiled and treated them as if they were themselves engaged in gang activity and not equally worthy and in need of immediate criminal protection by law enforcement."

Continue to read more about the tragic death of Jimma Reat and to see additional photos and the lawsuit.

The scene of the crime.
The scene of the crime.

To back up this contention, the lawsuit says Denver police initially tried to determine if Reat and his friends were gang members. Also mentioned are comments made in the press implying the harsh words that prompted the confrontation could have been gang-related.

These elements transition into a section that attempts to place Reat's death in a context of police policy requiring operators to have crime victims return to city limits in order to report incidents. Here's an excerpt:

More particularly, it is the longstanding widespread deliberately indifferent danger creating custom, habit, practice and/or policy for emergency communications operators to regularly refuse to dispatch units where the victims are safely located, and instead direct them to go back into city limits in the proximity of where the attackers were known to have just been or to still be, or even instruct the callers to remain at the scenes involving crimes against persons to meet police.

Denver has, with deliberate indifference, and actual knowledge, failed to mandate as policy or train its operators and dispatchers that in circumstances of reported assaults, they may never direct persons outside of Denver to return to Denver without providing immediate and timely police cover, and a specific protective plan to assure that there is no risk of further attack on such persons by their assailants in following 911 instructions.

This custom, habit, policy and practice has been in widespread effect since at least the 1980s, when it was reported in the media that a few young boys who were being attacked at a McDonald's in Denver, and who had gone to a safe place in Lakewood, were instructed by the Denver 911 operators to return to Denver, where officers would meet them.

In a release about the lawsuit, the Holland, Holland Edwards & Grossman attorneys write that the lawsuit "challenges a set of civil rights violations that have devastated a very loving South Sudanese refugee family, who thought they were finally living in a safe place after having escaped the ravages of war. As a child, Jimma Reat walked and was carried for months by his family from Sudan to a refugee camp in Ethiopia before coming to the United States and settling in Denver."

Continue to read more about the tragic death of Jimma Reat and to see additional photos and the lawsuit.

Jimma Reat, right, with two of the plaintiffs and the newborn child of another of his brothers.
Jimma Reat, right, with two of the plaintiffs and the newborn child of another of his brothers.

After summarizing the events that led to Reat's death, the release describes how this "traumatic set of preventable events" not only destroyed any opportunity for Reat to fulfill his promise, but also devastated his mother and father, Rebecca Awok Diag and James Reat, as well as Ran Pal, Changkuouth Pal and Joseph Kolong, "who were with him when he was killed, profoundly injured, grieving and in continuing despair."

At the same time, the statement offers credit to Denver and its leadership for straightforwardly acknowledging the tragedy, apologizing for the city's role and terminating the operator "very early after these events."

The release goes on to say:

The City has responded to this lawsuit by offering to engage in immediate direct discussions and information exchanges to see if this devastating matter can be fairly resolved, without the heartbreaking facts of this case having to be relived and fully aired out in Court by this family. It is hoped that as part of this dialogue, genuine reforms to the habits and customs that contributed to this catastrophe can be achieved, so that no one else is sent into such a "snake pit" in the future.

Look before to see two reports from 9News -- the first about the firing of the operator, the second one broadcast in the immediate aftermath of the homicide -- as well as the complete lawsuit.

Jimma Reat Complaint

More from our Mile High Murder archive: "De'Quan Walker-Smith ID'd as 29th and Franklin homicide victim: Gang-related? (43)"