A federal judge has ruled that Darrell Havens can proceed with his lawsuit against the Arvada police officer who shot him during a car-theft sting operation in 2007, leaving him a quadriplegic.
The decision has Havens' attorneys poised to conduct a fresh investigation of the controversial case, in which they allege that police have stonewalled, withheld evidence and misrepresented the true circumstances of the shooting, the subject of my 2010 feature "Wheel Man."
Now confined to a wheelchair and serving twenty years in prison for theft and attempted assault, Havens had initially filed his lawsuit acting on his own, only to see it dismissed for procedural reasons. But he's now represented by Colorado Springs attorney William Muhr, who filed for reconsideration, arguing that Havens was heavily medicated and not capable of representing himself -- and never received key notices from the court. Last week, after an evidentiary hearing during which Havens testified by speakerphone, U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger agreed to reinstate his claims.
The case stems from an attempt by eighteen police investigators from seven different agencies to arrest Havens, a suspected car thief, by luring him and a stolen Audi to a Target parking lot almost five years ago. The plan devised by Arvada detective Bill Johnson was to pin Havens in 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 and run him over due to the way it was pinned. Interviews with other officers supported Johnson's account, and Jefferson County District Attorney Scott Storey found that Johnson used "lawful and appropriate force." But as I reported last month, Ellis Armistead, a well-respected private investigator who reviewed the reports in the case at Muhr's request, found "there is a conflict between officers' statements and physical evidence at [the] scene."
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.
Havens's care in the Colorado Department of Corrections is costing the state in excess of $200,000 a year. Last year the state parole board granted him an early medical parole, but the parole was canceled after Arvada police chief Don Wick protested the move. The Arvada city attorney has since offered to rescind objections to the parole if Havens will drop his lawsuit, but Havens refused the deal, since it didn't include any guarantee that he would receive parole.
"That was completely improper," Muhr says of the parole machinations. "An attorney can't use the threat of criminal punishment to influence the outcome of a civil case."
Muhr and associate David Harper say they've had trouble obtaining shell casings and other evidence from the case. They're also seeking to reopen the matter of Havens's criminal conviction, contending that his attorney at the time failed to conduct any investigation and that Havens was coerced into a plea agreement while strongly sedated on painkillers.
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"He's been railroaded," says Harper. "It's outrageous."
But Jefferson County District Judge Lily Oeffler has denied their motion for a hearing. The attorneys say they'll appeal the ruling.
"If we don't get that hearing, it doesn't do us any good to win the civil case," says Harper. "Darrell's still in jail for twenty years, and he's in danger there. He may not make it out of there."
More from our Colorado Crimes archive: "Charles Farrar: Last-gasp appeal of sex-abuse case claims prosecution misconduct."