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Trials & Litigation

Jury Wallops Ex-Sheriff’s Deputies with $16M Award to Beaten Arrestee in ‘Kind of Pro Bono’ Case

Posted Jan 13, 2011 3:39 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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Arrested on an outstanding traffic warrant in 2007, a Texas man was beaten by two now-former Jefferson County sheriff's deputies while in custody at the jail.

Yesterday, after six hours of deliberation, a federal jury awarded Christopher Roberts, 24, more than $16 million, almost all of it in punitive damages, KYTX reports.

Although delighted by the verdict, which he describes as the most important he's likely to get in his career, the lead lawyer for Roberts tells the ABA Journal he may not collect anything in the "kind of pro bono" civil rights case.

That's because the defendants don't have the money to pay the verdict. Also, the county, which originally was also a defendant in the case, won a motion for summary judgment last year, explains Derek Merman of Simon & Luke in Houston. He plans to appeal the ruling, which was based on a determination that the treatment his client received was not a customary practice at the jail.

Defendants Rodney Cole and Johnny Vickery Jr., were captured on a surveillance camera while abusing Roberts, who was handcuffed part of the time, and Merman plans to use the video (at least part of which is linked to news coverage) in his appeal.

The footage alone shows that it is customary for officers to treat prisoners this way, Merman contends, since it includes images of officers standing around while Roberts was beaten and high-fiving each other afterward.

"What's ironic is I have yet to receive an apology from either one," Roberts told KYTX after the verdict. "My goal is to ensure that no one else has to suffer the same pain and humiliation that I went through."

Cole and Vickery were convicted in 2008 of official oppression, paid a fine of $4,000 each and resigned.

After yesterday's verdict, Cole's mother described him as a good man who made a mistake and is hurting. A lawyer for Vickery tells the station he is disappointed with the verdict.

Merman says he doesn't expect them to appeal.

Even if he never sees a dime from the case, "it's our hope that police officers will be deterred in the future from using excessive force" as a result of the $16 million award, he tells the ABA Journal. However, "we're not done. We think there's an endemic problem, and we're not going to stop until it's fixed."

When he took on the case, while working at Merman & Dunk, "we knew going into it that we weren't going to get the money up front," he says, and "there's not a lot of lawyers that want to take these cases because it's so hard to get paid."

After seeing the surveillance footage, however, he says, "I felt compelled morally" to pursue it. "From that point, I knew I was going to be on this until the end."

A Freedom of Information Act request by another attorney the Roberts family knew brought the surveillance footage to light and into his office, explains Merman.

Additional coverage:

Beaumont Enterprise: "Jury awards more than $16 million to man Jefferson County jailers beat"

Southeast Texas Record: "Former deputies punished with $16M jury verdict for beating prisoner "

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