The alleged pursuit of justice in the brutal April 2009 police beating of Michael DeHerrera, who was pummeled while using his cell phone to call his father, a cop, is a spectacular example of the justice system going off the rails.
Over the course of a decade, Denver police officers Randy Murr and Devin Sparks have been suspended, fired, un-fired and reinstated — the list goes on and on and on. Now, a Colorado Court of Appeals panel has reversed the dismissals of Murr and Sparks again, ruling that past Manager of Safety Charley Garcia's firing of the pair, following public outcry over a wrist slap given them by his predecessor, Ron Perea, violated procedure.
The complete ruling, dubbed Murr v. City and County of Denver, acknowledges that the result may not look or smell like justice. "We are acutely aware that this result means that the Officers essentially escape the consequences of their conduct, a result that is directly contrary to what the facts compel," it states before adding, "But agencies and courts must employ just and proper procedures to obtain just and equitable results."
On April 4, 2009, according to the "Findings of Fact" section of a February 2013 Civil Service Commission order regarding Murr and Sparks, DeHerrera and a companion, Shawn Johnson, caused a stir at 5 Degrees, a now-defunct club in LoDo, when both tried to use the women's bathroom. Bouncers subsequently escorted both of them outside, where they encountered Murr, who was working security at the venue in an off-duty capacity. The document says Murr asked DeHerrera and Johnson to leave, prompting physical contact of some sort, though witnesses couldn't agree on who did the pushing, shoving and/or striking.
In any event, Johnson was subsequently taken to the ground by one Gabriel Esquibel at Murr's instruction. Meanwhile, DeHerrera phoned his police-officer father. But the conversation was interrupted when Sparks, who arrived after the original incident, got physical with him in an extreme way. The reason, the document suggests, is that Murr told Sparks that DeHerrera had punched him earlier and needed to go to jail.
Afterward, Sparks insisted that he'd gone after DeHerrera in response to aggressive movement and resistance on the latter's part — actions not on view in video captured on a nearby HALO camera. Likewise, Murr told investigators that he'd seen DeHerrera try to hit Sparks, contradicting the visual evidence.
Here's the clip, courtesy of Complete Colorado:
The incident was major news for months — and it blew up even bigger in August 2010, when Manager of Safety Perea determined that Sparks and Murr should be suspended for three days without pay but not fired for their actions.
This conclusion was so reviled by a significant and vocal percentage of the public that Perea subsequently resigned. Then, in March 2011, new Manager of Safety Charley Garcia fired Murr and Sparks, but they appealed the decision, and a hearing panel sided with them. Why? Because the cops had already accepted Perea's punishment (by not appealing the decision during a prescribed period), Garcia's move to sack them for the same offense represented the equivalent of double jeopardy.
DeHerrera's September 2011 comments to Westword about these developments ring with irony today. "I knew it would be a long process," he told us, "but everything seemed so clear. The video speaks for itself, so we thought everything was laid out for things to happen smoothly and efficiently."
Hardly. The aforementioned February 2013 Civil Service Commission report essentially re-fired Sparks but reversed Murr's dismissal. That prompted an appeal by the Manager of Safety's office, and in December 2013, as noted in the latest ruling, the commission supported Garcia's right to fire the officers despite their acceptance of the suspension because he had acted "within a reasonable period of time" and his actions were prompted by "new and material evidence."
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In response, Murr and Sparks headed to Denver District Court, where the matter ground forward over the course of four-plus years. Finally, in November 2017, the district court affirmed the Manager of Safety's actions. But the officers remained unsatisfied, turning to the Colorado Court of Appeals, which flipped the script again.
The court's ruling notes that Murr and Sparks "argue that appellee the Civil Service Commission of the City and County of Denver...erroneously interpreted the Charter of the City and County of Denver...to grant the Manager of Safety...implied authority to reopen their disciplinary matter, rescind the discipline previously imposed, and order more severe penalties, all after the order became final and the time for appealing it had expired." The panel's simple conclusion: "We agree with the officers."
The City of Denver responded to the decision with a statement that reads in part: "The City is extremely disappointed and shocked by the Court of Appeals ruling, which effectively overrules previous decisions in its favor by the Denver District Court and Denver’s Civil Service Commission. The City can seek rehearing by the entire Court of Appeals or ask the Colorado Supreme Court to review the decision, but at this point the City Attorney’s Office, the Department of Public Safety, and Denver Police Department still need to confer about next steps."
In other words, this case still isn't over and could potentially drag on for years more despite video evidence that's entirely unambiguous. Murr and Sparks may have come out on top this time, but entropy is the real winner.