Inmates say they witnessed man’s death when jailers restrained, shocked him repeatedly

Denver Post

Posted: 07/18/2010 01:00:00 AM MDT

Marvin Booker just wanted to get his shoes.

But deputies at the new Denver jail told him to stop. When Booker, who was being processed on a charge of possession of drug paraphernalia, didn’t obey, he was held down, hit with electric shocks and then placed facedown in a holding cell, according to two inmates who watched it unfold.

Booker never got up. He was pronounced dead later that morning.

“I’ve never seen anything happen like that before in my life,” said John Yedo, 54, who was being processed on a charge of destruction of property and said he witnessed the scene. “What I saw is not what you’d expect to see in America.”

The two jail witnesses, who were both arrested in the early-morning hours of July 9 around the time Booker was being processed, were contacted and interviewed by The Denver Post separately. Both of them said they had not been questioned by police investigating the death of Booker, a homeless ordained minister who served the poor, but also a habitual criminal with a long string of arrests.

Capt. Frank Gale, spokesman for the jail, said he cannot comment on the ongoing investigation by the Denver Police Department and the Denver district attorney’s office, and cannot confirm the inmates’ accounts.

He said what happened at the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Facility would have been recorded on videotape.

“If in fact what they are saying is true, it should be reflected in the video,” Gale said.

District attorney spokeswoman Lynn Kimbrough said she couldn’t comment during the investigation, which could take several more weeks. The coroner’s office is awaiting test results before completing the autopsy report and determining how Booker died, she said. In the meantime, the deputies involved in Booker’s case are still on the job.

Yedo has had one prior arrest, in 1974 on a drug charge. Christopher Maten, 25, the other witness, was arrested in 2005 for public consumption of alcohol. Neither is a career criminal. The versions the two suspects tell are nearly identical.

“I can’t breathe . . .”

Both say that Booker, 56, was asleep in a chair in a holding area of the jail when his name was called and he was ordered to a processing desk.

Half-asleep about 3 a.m., Booker walked to the desk in his socks, forgetting to put on his shoes. The female deputy ordered Booker to sit in a chair in front of the desk.

Booker responded that he wished to stand. When the deputy threatened to have him placed in a holding cell if he didn’t sit, Booker told her he would go to the holding cell, said Maten, who had been arrested that morning for resisting arrest in a confrontation with a parking-meter attendant.

” ‘Let me get my shoes,’ ” Maten quoted Booker as saying as he walked toward the chairs to get his shoes.

The deputy yelled at him repeatedly to stop, got up and followed Booker. Booker turned and repeated that he was getting his shoes, Maten said.

The deputy grabbed Booker by the arm and put a lock on him, Yedo said. Booker, who was 5 feet 5 and weighed 175 pounds, pushed her away. At that point, four other deputies wrestled Booker to the concrete floor. They slid down two steps to the floor in the sitting area. Yedo said the deputies each grabbed a limb while he struggled.

” ‘Get the Taser. Get the Taser,’ ” Yedo quoted one of the deputies as saying.

Yedo said he was only about 3 feet away, and Maten said he was close enough that if he stood and took one step, he could reach out and touch one of the deputies.

None of the deputies involved in the restraint has been identified. One female deputy was treated at a hospital for an injury she suffered in the confrontation, Gale said.

A fifth deputy put Booker in a headlock just as the female deputy began shocking him with a Taser with encouragement from one of the deputies, who kept repeating, “Probe his —,” Maten said. He could hear the Taser crackle repeatedly.

Booker said, “‘I can’t breath . . .,” Yedo heard. Then, Booker went limp.

Booker’s wrists were handcuffed behind his back in an awkward position when the deputies picked him up, each holding an arm or a leg, and carried him stomach-down to a holding cell with an unbreakable glass door.

They set him down on his stomach, with much of his weight on one shoulder and his legs bent, Yedo said. They took the handcuffs off and without checking his pulse, the officers left him on the floor of the holding cell.

The deputies walked away high-fiving and laughing, Maten said. Several inmates were saying, ” ‘I can’t believe they’re doing this,’ ” Maten said.

Yedo said he stared at Booker, watching his chest, which wasn’t moving. One deputy had stayed next to the cell and was also staring at Booker.

“I told the guy, ‘Hey, that guy is not breathing,’ ” Yedo said.

The deputy turned and yelled at the sergeant.

” ‘Sergeant, come here. Sergeant, hurry,’ ” Yedo said he yelled.

Channeling MLK

Booker was the son of a prominent Tennessee pastor, Benjamin Booker. The habitual criminal was arrested in Denver mostly during the 1980s and 1990s for disorderly conduct, trespass, loitering, disturbing the peace, carrying a concealed weapon and threatening assault.

In 2007 and 2008, he was homeless in downtown Memphis, said friend Dennis Lynch of Memphis. Booker often volunteered to work in soup kitchens.

He wrote a book about Martin Luther King Jr., and he sold it on the streets of Memphis, usually to tourists who heard him recite King’s famous “I have a dream” speech. When he spoke, crowds of tourists gathered.

“If you closed your eyes, you would think you were in the presence of Martin Luther King,” said Memphis Pastor Andrews R. Smith. “People would cry. He was always smiling. His eyes would just shine like a chipmunk.”

Booker often accompanied him when he made rounds in downtown Memphis, handing out food to the homeless. They all called him “Martin” because of his speeches.

“Marvin is such a kindhearted person,” Smith said. His sweet demeanor makes the circumstances of his death seem suspicious, he said.

When Memphis police cracked down on panhandling, Booker returned to Denver, Lynch said. George Booker, Booker’s cousin, said that recently his cousin was volunteering to help the homeless at Denver churches and was trying to turn his life around.

Booker’s funeral was Friday at Cathedral of Faith Community Church, the Memphis chapel where his brother C.L. Booker is the pastor. More than 200 people attended the service, in which his father gave the eulogy, Smith said.

A Suspicious (and Lonely) Death in Maine State Prison’s Lockdown Unit

March 19, 2010

SOLITARY WATCH GUEST AUTHOR
Guest Post by Stan Moody

Editors’ note: Our first guest post on Solitary Watch News is by Stan Moody, a former state representative and chaplain at the Maine State Prison, where he ministered to inmates in the supermax unit. Moody, who currently serves as pastor at the Meeting House Church in Manchester, Maine, is the author of the books Crisis in Evangelical Scholarship and McChurched: 300 Million Served and Still Hungry.

In February, Moody testified at a hearing in the Maine State Legislature on a proposed bill to limit solitary confinement in the state’s prisons. As part of his testimony, he told the story of a prisoner who died alone in his segregation cell; he tells the same story, in more detail, in this guest post. More of Moody’s writings can be found at www.stanmoody.com.

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I wrote this article on St. Valentine’s Day, a day that conjures up a wide range of experiences, from first love to the famous massacre on February 14, 1929…

There are 4,000 or more people incarcerated in Maine at the moment. Keeping watch over them are hundreds of prison guards, most of whom would rather be home than spending love’s holiday doing cavity search or bed counts. Happy Valentine’s Day!

There is a widow in upstate NY who reels from a double-whammy of a brilliant, successful husband who confessed to a sexual assault and the memory of his ashes arriving 6 months later from Maine State Prison (MSP) with the notice that he had died of “natural causes.” Then another whammy–finding out 6 weeks later, after she had buried him, that it was a homicide and that prison officials had known as much within minutes of his death–officially, within 2 days.

There are others who come to mind who are reeling, as well, from conflict over what to do about this situation that, if brought into the light, will explode into a full-blown crisis. Maine Department of Corrections officials are on pins and needles, wondering what is going to happen when this explodes. I was scheduled to give testimony on the conditions at the supermax unit at MSP that I feel gave rise to the death of inmate Sheldon Weinstein, a prospect that threw a wrench into my Valentine’s Day.

I have a picture in my mind of the Attorney General’s Office vainly searching for a good option to prosecute somebody for this death without smearing the prison system. It has been nearly 10 months since Weinstein died alone in his cell of a ruptured spleen presumed to have been caused by an inmate assault 4 days earlier. It is not as though they had to go looking for a suspect or that the evidence was scattered over 50 states. Nobody was going anywhere. Justice is slow and nearly blind, but it gets slower and blinder when a state agency is implicated.

It is easier to digest this story if we can somehow de-humanize people caught up in the meat grinder we call justice–guards and prisoners alike. Whether you like it or not, however, all players in the justice drama are human beings, Weinstein included. It is that very humanity that cries out for reform of the efficient, military, detached environment that we call Maine State Prison.

It may be time for me to share my story.

It was Friday, April 24, 2009. I was finishing my rounds as Chaplain at the Special Management Unit (Supermax) when I came to the end of the dreaded B1 corridor, looked in and saw Sheldon Weinstein sitting on his wheelchair with his legs across his bunk, 10 feet away. He smiled when he saw me and joked about how old men like him and me were targets in prison. I saw his hugely black eye and asked him if he had other injuries. He pointed to his stomach. He then asked me if I could help get him some toilet paper. He had been using his pillow case, but since he had no pillow, it didn’t matter anyway, I suppose.

I spent probably 10 minutes talking/shouting with Sheldon through a steel cell door. I then left and asked a guard on duty to see that he got some toilet paper.

I came in the next morning and was told that Weinstein was found dead at around 6:00 pm that evening. His posture had been reversed. He was lying across his bunk, with his feet in his wheelchair. He had yellow complexion, suggesting liver or spleen, his stomach was distended, and rigor mortis had begun to set in, indicating that he probably had died within an hour or two after I left.

My amateur diagnosis of cause of death was ruptured spleen, confirmed by autopsy within 2 days. Almost universally, the reaction of captains, guards, sergeants and inmates was, “Good riddance!” “One less mouth to feed!” One prisoner, however, had taken it upon himself before the assault to wheel confessed sex offender Weinstein to the chow hall to prevent him from being spit upon.

When they found him, Weinstein did have toilet paper.

There is a prisoner in segregation who is awaiting indictment for murder. I have had a number of conversations with that prisoner. If I were his attorney, I would be licking my chops over this one. Did Weinstein die of an assault, or did he die of medical and security neglect? If there is a murder indictment, will any prison staff be implicated as accessory? Since someone brought toilet paper to him, and since he was unlikely to have been able to maneuver to the cell door, and since his sitting position was reversed, did he die from the assault on the previous Monday, or did something further happen to him on Friday?

Has the pathology report on the condition of the spleen been analyzed by other medical professionals to determine if it were likely to have taken four days to bleed out?

Adding intrigue to the situation, the guard whom I asked to provide toilet paper was placed on Administrative Leave almost immediately. The guard who was on duty in the housing unit where Weinstein was assaulted was fired.

The test for first degree murder is malice aforethought–that is, that the person or persons involved plotted and intended to kill. That, however, is problematic in the case of Maine State Prison. Here’s why.

Assaults of inmates by other inmates not only are common there but may be, some believe, tacitly encouraged. In Weinstein’s case, it began with the decision to place him in a minimum security housing unit notorious for attacks on sex offenders. Beating sex offenders and “rats” (people who give the names of those who beat them) was so common that it had become routine. The victim would be given the signature black eye and be placed in segregation for his own protection for months, while those who carried out the assault would often be out within 10 days.

I have written an exhaustive narrative on the circumstances surrounding the death of Prisoner Weinstein but will hold that narrative until I sense that there is movement toward justice in this case. There can be no rationalization for his crime. Yet, he was not sentenced to the death to which he was consigned. He had a surprising background that defies common stereotypes of sex offenders. The way in which prison officials handled the matter with his surviving family speaks volumes about a profound failure of conscience.

The death of Sheldon Weinstein has changed my life remarkably. While both prisoners and guards cannot seem to get beyond his crime, I was confronted with a real life situation from which I could not in good conscience walk away. It has cost me dearly in terms of my political stature and will, I presume, continue to do so. It has opened my eyes to the fallacy that nearly all people in government, at the end of the day, are good people who really want to do the right thing. I have seen a level of contradiction that I could have gone on blithely the rest of my life without seeing.

Will Weinstein’s death be subjected to the level of investigation it deserves? Will his death become a catalyst for addressing the system of favoritism and influence peddling that prevails at the prison? Who can know the answer to these questions? Thus far, there has been no indication of change to a system that mirrors the “blue line of silence.”

My hope is that there will be a few Department of Corrections employees who will summon the courage to speak out against systemic practices within the prison that are the root cause of discrimination and inconsistent discipline.

Sheldon Weinstein: brilliant; Jewish; sex offender; dead within 6 months of incarceration. Who cares?