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Death of California Homeless Man in Police Custody Yields $4.675 Million to Family

by Christopher Zoukis

    Following a civil suit against Eureka, California police officers, the city of Eureka and Humboldt County in the death of a 26-year-old homeless man while in police custody, the man's family received a settlement and jury award totaling $4.675 million.

     On August 9, 2007, Martin Cotton II was approached by several police officers outside the Eureka Rescue Mission. The officers were sent in response to a call about a disturbance involving a fight. According to Officers Adam Laird and Justin Winkle, Cotton shoved someone in their presence, prompting them to order him to put his hands behind his back.

     When Cotton did not comply, Laird and Winkle pepper-sprayed him, and Winkle allegedly kneed Cotton in the stomach. Then, once he was taken to the ground, the plaintiffs alleged that Cotton endured baton blows, kicks, knee strikes and punches to the head. Officer Gary Whitmer allegedly gave a running kick to Cotton, used a baton and pepper-sprayed him, all while he was on the ground.

     Cotton was brought to jail and placed in a sobering cell, where staff conducted cell checks every 15 minutes. During one of these checks, a guard noted that Cotton had very shallow breathing, initiating an emergency response. Within two hours of his arrest, Cotton was dead of acute subdural hemorrhage due to blunt-force trauma of the head.

     Cotton's daughter, Siehna, and his father, Martin Cotton Sr., filed an excessive force and failure to intervene lawsuit in federal court against the city of Eureka and the officers present during Cotton's arrest, who included Laird, Winkle, Whitmer, Steven Watson, Tim Jones, Josh Siipola and Brian Franco. They also brought claims against Humboldt County and its jail guards, Fernando Cangas, Chet Christensen, Dennis Griffen, Frances Morgan, Adam Rossiter and Devin Strong, for deliberate indifference to Cotton's medical needs.

     It went undisputed that Cotton had been in a fight before the police arrived and that he had been hit in the head. It was less certain whether the police also had hit him in the head. The manager of the Rescue Mission, who was standing within 6 feet of the altercation, said he never saw the officers hit Cotton in the head, but a witness standing 75 feet away said he did.

     The family argued that the officers used excessive force, then neglected to seek any medical attention for Cotton. They contended that he was not medically screened before being put in the cell, and that timely medical care would have saved his life. Counsel for the county asserted that Cotton would not respond to the pre-booking medical screening questions at the jail and that they saw no obvious injuries.

     Officers Watson, Jones, Siipola and Franco were dismissed from the case on summary judgment, along with prison guard Strong. The county agreed to a settlement of $100,000 prior to trial, which included the remaining prison guards.

     They jury awarded the family $4.575 million finding against police officers Laird and Winkle for using excessive force and against officers Laird, Winkle and Whitmer for failure to provide medical care. This included $30,000 in punitive damages against Winkle, $30,000 against Laird and $15,000 against Whitmer. The jury designated $4 million for Cotton's 5-year-old daughter, Siehna, and $500,000 for Martin Cotton Sr. The total amount of the award and settlement was $4.675 million

See: Cotton, et al., v. City of Eureka, et al., United States District Court for the Northern District of California, Oakland Division, Case No. 4:08-cv-04386-SBA (Sept. 23, 2011)

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Related legal case

Cotton, et al., v. City of Eureka, et al.