A federal appeals court has reversed a Fort Worth judge’s decision to dismiss a lawsuit against the city and two police officers in the death of an obese man who suffered a heart attack during a drug raid in 2013.
A three-judge panel on the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans issued the ruling Wednesday morning, arguing that evidence suggested Jermaine Darden, 34, wouldn’t have died if the officers had not used a Taser on him and forced him onto his stomach.
In the ruling to dismiss the wrongful death lawsuit filed by Darden’s family in 2014, U.S. District Judge John McBryde had written that Darden, who weighed about 340 pounds, “had multiple risk factors for sudden cardiac death and the severity of his cardiac disease alone made him susceptible to sudden cardiac death at any time, with or without physical exertion.”
Darden died of natural causes, with sudden cardiac death associated with high blood pressure and application of restraints, the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office ruled.
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Darden also had liver disease and thyroid disease, according to court documents.
But a medical expert for Darden’s family testified that Darden’s death should not have been ruled “natural,” according to the Fifth Circuit’s ruling Wednesday.
“Accordingly, the plaintiff can show that the use of force was the direct and only cause of Darden’s death,” despite his pre-existing medical conditions, Judge Edward C. Prado wrote in the ruling.
Veteran police officers W.F. Snow and J. Romero were named in the lawsuit, and other unidentified officers were said to have participated in the raid and in restraining Darden.
The officers had executed a “no-knock” search warrant on May 16, 2013, bursting into a residence in the 3200 block of Thannisch Avenue without warning, according to court documents.
According to witnesses, several people, including Darden, were inside. They said that Darden was not attempting to flee, attack or resist when police officers choked him, kicked him several times, punched him and shocked him, according to court documents.
Several officers applied their weight to Darden’s back, making it difficult for him to breathe, the court documents said. Witnesses told officers that Darden had asthma and could not breathe.
Officers seized 2.4 grams of cocaine, 1.8 grams of heroin and 3.1 ounces of marijuana, according to court documents. They believed some of the drugs belonged to Darden, McBryde wrote in his opinion in 2014.
Darden was shocked twice by a Taser and did not get on the ground as ordered by officers after he was shocked with the stun gun, court documents said. As soon as officers were able to handcuff Darden, the use of force stopped, McBryde’s opinion said.
Lawyers for the city have contended that Darden held his arms under his body in an attempt to resist apprehension, court documents said.
But in the ruling Wednesday, the Fifth Circuit court wrote that Darden, according to video from the incident, “raised his hands when the officers entered the residence, and it appears that he rolled over onto his face at one point after the officers instructed him to do so.”
“Based on evidence in the record, a jury could conclude that no reasonable officer on the scene would have thought that Darden was resisting arrest,” the court’s ruling said.
The court’s ruling acknowledged that Darden, at one point, “seemed to pull his arm away from the officers when they were trying to handcuff him,” but that “all reasonable officers on the scene would have believed that Darden was merely trying to get into a position where he could breathe and was not resisting arrest.”
Judge Carolyn Dineen King wrote a brief concurring opinion, saying that McBryde’s decision to dismiss the lawsuit “was, at the very least, premature.”
The city and the two officers can appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. In some cases, rulings can also be appealed to a larger panel of judges in the Fifth Circuit.
If the city and the officers don’t appeal, or if the appeal is denied, the case will return to the U.S. District Court in Fort Worth.
The Fort Worth city attorney’s office declined to comment on the case Wednesday. Kenneth East, the attorney for Snow, also declined to comment. D. Lee Thomas, the attorney for Romero, did not respond to a request for comment.
In a brief filed to the Fifth Circuit court before the ruling, East wrote that Snow “acted reasonably when he encountered Jermaine Darden, who for an extended time refused to comply with the commands of officers” in an “inherently tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving” situation.
Even if the incident contributed to Darden’s fatal heart attack, East wrote in the brief, “that is far from showing that Darden’s death was caused directly and only by any claimed excessive force.”
Daryl Washington, the Darden family’s lead attorney, said Wednesday that bodycam footage from the incident “clearly showed that it was use of excessive force.”
Washington said the family was “elated” about the court’s ruling and hopeful they would get justice.
“You can’t use excessive force on an individual, and then come back and say, ‘Well, this individual was obese and he was going to die anyway,’ ” Washington said. “If that’s the case, you can basically use excessive force on anyone. There’s going to be a point and time when we all die.”
Matt Kita, another Darden family attorney who was involved in the appeal process, said in a statement that the court affirmed that “a compliant suspect has a clearly established right to be free from excessive force.”
The ruling “also correctly concluded that our client has the right to have questions about the reasonableness of the officers’ conduct decided by a jury,” Kita’s statement said.
This report contains information from the Star-Telegram archives