Prisoner Darrell Havens, Paralyzed in a Police Shooting, Granted Medical Parole

A state inmate who was left a quadraplegic by police bullets during a bungled car-theft sting operation — and who subsequently filed a lawsuit against the officer who shot him — was quietly released from prison earlier this month on a special medical parole, after serving roughly one third of his twenty-year sentence. 

Parole officials have long acknowledged that Darrell Havens doesn't pose a risk to public safety. But previous efforts by the wheelchair-bound Havens to obtain an early parole were thwarted by objections from the Jefferson County district attorney and the Arvada police, in response to his lawsuit claiming police misconduct in the 2007 shooting. That lawsuit was eventually dismissed, but Havens hasn't given up on the idea of further appeals. 

Now 27 years old, Havens has battled an array of health problems during his incarceration, from scoliosis to virulent bacterial infections; his medical needs were regarded as among the most severe in the entire Colorado Department of Corrections. Last December, he was diagnosed with progressive respiratory failure and placed on oxygen. But while he says he still needs back surgery to correct some of his health issues, moving in with family members has already resulted in some positive changes in his condition. "I'm breathing a lot better now that I'm out," he says. "I haven't had to be on oxygen once."

At nineteen, as we've previously reported, Havens, a prolific car thief, had been targeted by a multi-agency police task force, which lured him and a stolen Audi to a shopping center parking lot in early 2007. The plan devised by Arvada detective Bill Johnson was to pin Havens in the Audi with undercover vehicles and taser him if he resisted arrest. Instead, Johnson ended up firing his .45 nine times, striking Havens with three bullets and injuring his spine.

Johnson told shoot-team investigators that Havens began ramming the police vehicles in an effort to escape and that he fired to protect himself, fearing the Audi might break free from being pinned by other vehicles. Interviews with other officers supported Johnson's account, and Jefferson County District Attorney Scott Storey found that Johnson used "lawful and appropriate force." But subsequent investigation and the release of an audio tape of the shooting indicated contradictions in the officers' stories and suggested the shooting wasn't as clear-cut as it seemed. Havens has always maintained that police vehicles began ramming him before he could even attempt to escape, and that he wasn't in control of the car when he was shot. He was unarmed.

After months of care in hospitals and a nursing home, Havens pleaded guilty to attempted assault and received a twenty-year sentence. Alarmed by the cost of his care, DOC officials sought to obtain a medical parole for him after he'd been incarcerated just a few months. The state parole board granted the parole, then abruptly "suspended" it after Arvada police chief Don Wick protested the move in a call to then-board chairman David Michaud — a former Denver police chief.

Every year since that debacle, Havens has reapplied for medical parole; every year, he was turned down. (A 2013 Denver Post story, which grossly underestimated the cost of his care and erroneously reported that he'd tried to smuggle marijuana into prison twice, didn't help matters.) But this time around, the outcome was different. "It wasn't initiated by anyone else," he notes. "I put it in." 

Since his release, which came with little advance warning, Havens has had to scramble to find medical providers and obtain anti-seizure medications. He's met with a parole officer and is expected to be drug-tested once a month, but isn't required to wear an ankle monitor; his parole officer told him "there's really nowhere you can go," he says. But although his doctors have described him as requiring "complete care," he remains optimistic about his progress, noting that he has feeling in his legs and can hold himself up with one functioning arm. He can also use a phone and write — which is important, since he hasn't abandoned his efforts to seek redress for the shooting and what he considers the poor medical care he received in prison.

"All the civil rights they violated while I was in there, that does not go away," he says. "I need to get back to working on my cases."
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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast