DENVER – A federal jury on Friday awarded $14 million in damages to 12 protesters who were injured by police officers in Denver during the 2020 protests in the first excessive force and civil rights trial coming out of the demonstrations over the death of George Floyd.
The jury’s award comes after a three-week trial in which the jury heard testimony about failures in leadership and coordination by police in responding to the protests in Denver and injuries suffered by protesters at the hands of officers from Denver and other nearby departments.
Twelve protesters were plaintiffs in the lawsuit: Elisabeth Epps, Ashlee Wedgeworth, Amanda Blasingame, Maya Rothlein, Zach Packard, Hollis Lyman, Stanford Smith, Sara Fitouri, Jacquelyn Parkins, Claire Sannier, Kelsey Taylor and Joe Deras. The defendants in the lawsuit were the city and county of Denver and Denver Police Officer Jonathan Christian.
Attorney Andy McNulty, who has represented several protesters who said their civil rights were violated by Denver police during the summer of 2020 protests, said a key moment in the trial was when former independent monitor Nick Mitchell testified about officers telling him they were not prepared for the demonstrations.
The 12 plaintiffs were hit with pepper spray, bean bags and more during several days of protests in the downtown area, and claimed in the lawsuit that their First Amendment rights to demonstrate were violated because of officers’ unreasonable force and use of “less lethal” ammunition.
The plaintiffs also alleged Fourth Amendment violations in using excessive force by firing the munitions often without warning and at sensitive parts of their bodies, like their heads.
Denver’s attorneys had argued that missteps and mistakes made by officers did not necessarily mean they had violated the constitutional rights of the demonstrators.
Epps, an abolitionist who is running for one of Denver’s state House seats this year, also alleged Christian was one of the officers who shot her during the demonstrations – something his and Denver’s attorneys had denied.
“Denver claims that the officers acted reasonably in response to the circumstances of the incidents they encountered as on multiple days they were faced with violent and destructive behavior,” the judge’s instructions to the jury said. “Denver claims that the officers were fully and properly trained, and that Denver’s official policies, and its practices and customs applicable at the time, were in conformance with established constitutional law.”
But when U.S. District Court of Colorado Senior Judge R. Brooke Jackson read the jury’s verdict late Friday afternoon, it was nearly unanimous in favor of the protesters.
The jury ruled in favor of all 12 plaintiffs, though to varying degrees. For Sannier, Smith, Fitouri, Rothlein, Blasingame, Deras, Taylor, Parkins and Lyman, the jury found their First and Fourth Amendments had been violated and awarded them $1 million each in compensatory damages.
The jury awarded Packard $3 million in compensatory damages, found his First and Fourth Amendment rights had been violated, and found officers from a mutual aid agency violated his constitutional rights.
The jury found Wedgeworth’s First Amendment rights were violated and awarded $750,000 in compensatory damages.
And it found Epps’s First and Fourth Amendment rights were violated, and that Christian violated her Fourth Amendment rights. The jury awarded her $1 million in compensatory damages and $250,000 in punitive damages for her claim against Christian.
The jury started deliberating Friday morning before delivering the verdict around 4 p.m.
"We won," Epps told Denver7 Friday. "We haven't ended police brutality today, but we've sent a very clear message...— the jury semt a very clear message to the city that we love — that this behavior is unacceptable. And so it's an important step. But we have a lot of work ahead."
"I mean, this this is certainly a step. But verdicts and convictions don't bring justice, they're all a part of this brutal system. And until we see these systems dismantled, we're not going to see justice or safe communities in the United States," said Claire Sannier, another one of the plaintiffs, in an interview with Denver7 Friday afternoon.
Denver has already settled other lawsuits tied to the protests for more than $1.3 million so far.
In a statement Friday, city officials acknowledged mistakes were made by officers responding to the protests and outlined some of the ways in which the department changed how they'll respond to peaceful protests moving forward.
The statement reads in part, "We continue to evaluate our policies and training to ensure we are using best practices identified by law enforcement throughout the country to better protect peaceful protestors while addressing those who are only there to engage in violence. We recognize that there is more work to be done, and the Denver Police Department will continue collaboration with the communities we serve on that work."