One of the most controversial police shootings in recent years — the 2016 daylight gun-down of robbery suspect Dion Damon near the Denver Art Museum — has come to a quiet resolution. On November 15, a federal jury determined that there wasn't enough evidence to prove that Denver Police Technician Jeffrey Motz violated Damon's civil rights by killing him, as a lawsuit filed on behalf of his loved ones contended. Motz, who was cleared of criminal wrongdoing by former Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey despite having been involved in two prior fatal shootings, had told investigators that he thought he'd seen a firearm before pulling the trigger, but Damon was armed only with a cell phone.
"We are grateful for a verdict in favor of Technician Motz, but we recognize that there are not winners or losers in a case like this, where a life is lost. Any loss of life is tragic," Denver City Attorney Kristin Bronson writes via email. "There is no question that police officers have difficult and unenviable jobs and are frequently called upon to make life-and-death decisions during dangerous and rapidly changing circumstances. We sincerely appreciate the time the jury took to consider the facts and law before deciding the case in favor of Technician Motz."
The Damon estate is represented by two powerhouse Denver law firms: Holland, Holland Edwards & Grossman and Killmer, Lane & Newman LLP. Attorneys John Holland and Darold Killmer, who spoke to us in detail about the case in April 2018 upon the filing of the original lawsuit, which is shared here, responded to Westword's questions about the verdict with a joint statement.
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"We are currently reviewing issues that we see for appeal, including among others the determination by the court that Denver could not be held liable in this case for its continuing custom of covering up and exonerating police officers who use excessive force," their statement says. "We believe this custom was foundational to the officer's well grounded understanding that he could safely shoot first, claim he saw a non-existent gun and never be asked any questions later."
Just past 12:30 p.m. on April 12, 2016, Damon parked his car between 13th and 14th avenues on the east side of Bannock Street so that his wife, Dawn Aguirre, could pay a ticket at the Denver City and County Building. After she and the couple's young son left the vehicle, members of the Rocky Mountain Safe Streets Task Force, who had been tailing Damon because of his suspected involvement in a March 17, 2016, armed robbery at the Bank of Denver branch near Holly and Leetsdale, converged on his Dodge Charger, blocking it in against the curb. "Mr. Damon could not, and did not try to, escape," the lawsuit confirms.
But shortly thereafter, the suit claims, Motz exited the truck in which he was traveling and pointed his gun at Damon from about ten feet away. He wasn't the only one; other officers pulled their weapons, too, although at least one returned to his vehicle to get what's characterized as "less-lethal aid." No officer, including Motz, shouted "Gun!," the police protocol when an officer believes a firearm has been sighted. An estimated 47 seconds into the encounter, Motz unleashed his fusillade.
Aguirre was standing nearby throughout the encounter and "yelled loudly and repeatedly that her husband was unarmed, and that if they let her talk with him, he would readily get out of the vehicle," according to the lawsuit. A bystander who volunteers for the New York Police Department and testified that he's sympathetic to law enforcement also heard Damon tell officers at the scene that "I'm unarmed."
Even so, the suit charges, "Defendant Motz reportedly gave commands for Mr. Damon to show him his hands. When Mr. Damon raised his hands as ordered, Defendant Motz shot Mr. Damon six or seven times, killing him. Ms. Aguirre watched her husband’s death from approximately twenty feet away."
A subsequent search of the Charger netted no gun. The only object near Damon was a white cell phone stained with his blood.
In interviews after the shooting, the suit notes, more than thirty law enforcement officers on the scene said they hadn't seen a gun. The sole exception was Motz, who insisted he'd spotted "a black-and-silver-colored semi-auto in [Damon's] right hand. And it's starting to come toward me." In a post-shooting session, Motz mimicked a two-handed shooting stance to simulate Damon's maneuver (below). A theory that Damon had committed suicide-by-cop in the presence of his wife, and with his child nearby, was also floated.
Morrissey concluded in a decision letter accessible here that "Damon was the cause of the lethal outcome because he made the sudden threatening gesture pretending to point a gun at Motz." He also asserted that "the location of the entrance wound shows that the outside of Damon’s forearm was facing Motz when it was struck. In other words, Damon’s palms were not facing Motz when he was shot," as they would be, presumably, if he'd been raising his hands in the traditional surrender motion. "It is exactly the wound path one would expect if Damon was shot in the forearm while making the gesture with his hands that Motz described."
Holland and Killmer reject this theory, but Morrissey saw it as evidence that "strongly supports Motz’s credibility and the accuracy of his description of Damon’s gesture."
This wasn't the first time Motz found himself having to explain his actions after a fatal encounter with a suspect. In our interview last year, Killmer told us that "Officer Motz had already shot and killed at least two people before he killed Mr. Damon. He and seven other officers shot a man named Shaun Gilman in 2003, and upon being questioned afterward, Officer Motz said, 'He had a gun,' which wasn't true. Mr. Gilman didn't have a gun; he had a crossbow. Now, you might think a person could mistake a crossbow for a gun pretty easily, but Officer Motz went one step further: He said Mr. Gilman had a gun and was firing it right at the officer, which was pure fiction — but investigators never interrogated him about why he said gunshots were being fired when they weren't. And in 2013, he and other officers also killed a man named Johnny Montoya, who apparently did have a gun — but the shooting is the subject of litigation by another guy who was shot in the incident, Michael Valdez. He was a completely innocent guy who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and another officer shot him in the back after he and his girlfriend had put their hands up and laid face-down on the ground."
In 2002, before any of these incidents, Motz had already "sustained administrative charges of 'Failure to Shoot,'" the lawsuit notes. "That kind of makes you wonder," Killmer said in 2018. "You discipline employees so they learn a lesson and don't do something again, and Officer Motz hasn't been disciplined for failure to shoot since that — and neither has he been disciplined for shooting repeatedly."
Including the shooting that resulted in Damon's death. Holland and Killmer acknowledge that "this has been a tough case. ... The jury was not satisfied and gave the officer the benefit of the doubt. We believe strongly in the jury system, which remains intact despite the ongoing attacks on our democratic institutions as a whole."
The statement continues: "Defendant Motz never told a coherent story as to why someone would point a phone at a bunch of cops who were pointing real guns at him, and if they were implying that Dion Damon wanted to kill himself, it was wild speculation based on not a scintilla of evidence. It also has never made sense to us that Dion would point something to get himself killed in front of his wife and a child he loved. Denver's policies require police to consider de-escalation, which includes tactical repositioning. Dawn was begging to help negotiate to get her husband get out of the car. A lot of people heard that. We do not think this had to go down like this in just 47 seconds."
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Their analysis convinced them that "all other officers repositioned and were organizing a non-lethal approach — except for Technician Motz, who decided not to reposition. While all these other officers were looking for a solution, Technician Motz claimed to have seen a gesture, which we do not think occurred based on the science. The forensic evidence here was compelling that Motz’s inconsistent gesture story, generated hours after he killed Damon and it was known there were no other witnesses, was scientifically insupportable."
The City and County of Denver was a defendant in the initial lawsuit, but a subsequent ruling removed Denver as a defendant, much to the regret of the plaintiffs' attorneys. In their joint statement, Holland and Killmer offer this: "We believe that Denver's custom of exoneration was on display in this case and that the jury should have been allowed to consider the strong evidence that Denver has created a culture in which officers who kill unarmed people know that their backs are covered and Denver will even invent suicide to win the day. In the last 140-plus police shootings in Denver over the last 25 years, every officer has been exonerated by DPD and the DA's office."
The November 15 verdict would seem to have ended the opportunity to make such arguments — but the attorneys hint that the case may not be over. "We remain concerned about a number of issues, and the family is considering their options," they say. "This family loved Dion and are finding it very hard to accept that this is all just fine. Dion is survived by his wife, his mother and stepfather, and his children — all of whom are mourning his loss. An African proverb seems important here: 'Only when lions have historians will hunters cease being heroes.'"