HOUSTON — A jury Monday awarded four men who claim they were brutalized by Galveston police officers about $49,000, a sum that fell far short of the millions of dollars sought by 12 plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit.

The mixed verdict determined that four officers used excessive force against the members of a 2008 wedding party on the island. But jurors deadlocked on questions about whether the Galveston Police Department had a custom of using and underreporting excessive force.

U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison summed up the reaction to the jury’s verdict.

“I suspect that both sides are in some measure disappointed,” Ellison said.

Jury: Officers used excessive force

The jury found that Capt. Byron Frankland, Sgt. Douglas Balli and officers Dannie Simpson II and John Rutherford used excessive force against members of the wedding party. However, Rutherford’s use of force was “within the bounds of appropriate police responses,” according to the verdict.

Jurors were instructed to assess use of force by Frankland and Balli even though they were not named as defendants in the lawsuit filed against the city of Galveston and 10 officers in an attempt by the plaintiffs to show a custom of excessive use of force.

The jury either rejected or deadlocked on the majority of the individual claims of excessive force being used by police officers.

Defense: ‘These are good officers’

Attorney William Helfand, who represented the city and the accused officers, said the verdict was largely favorable to his clients.

Helfand said it vindicated the Galveston Police Department and its officers, who used reasonable force in an “extremely volatile” situation, in accordance with police training.

Helfand said the plaintiffs’ case was built on exaggeration and misstatement, and the verdict helped prove the accused officers, most of whom still work for the police department, did their jobs fairly and appropriately.

“These are good officers,” Helfand said.

Because Simpson was the only officer named in the lawsuit found by jurors to have used excessive force outside the bounds of “appropriate police responses,” his is the only case that may be appealed, Helfand said.

Who will pay the plaintiffs?

It was unclear Monday who would pay for the roughly $50,000 in damages awarded to four of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit because jurors deadlocked on questions concerning whether the city of Galveston was liable for any excessive use of force by police officers, Helfand said.

It’s one of several issues attorneys for both sides will bring up with Judge Ellison during the coming weeks and possibly months, Helfand said.

“We’ll have to address how that is handled,” he said.

Ellison will decide how to proceed with the claims for which jurors did not reach a unanimous verdict.

Backe will seek to have case retried

Jurors failed to reach a unanimous verdict on whether former Houston Astros pitcher Brandon Backe was beaten by Sgt. Nicholas McDermott at The San Luis Resort’s H2O bar, although they rejected allegations that Backe was subjected to excessive force by three other officers.

Backe, who claims the alleged beating by police ended his professional baseball career, sought up to $15 million in damages. Backe and his attorneys said they would seek to have his case retried.

Backe was a groomsman at the wedding, and approached officers arresting Cole O’Balle outside the H2O bar. Backe testified that he put his hands up in a nonthreatening manner, and told officers he was unable to back up because a crowd was behind him.

Backe said he was then thrown to the ground and beaten by several officers.

Jurors deadlocked on whether Sgt. McDermott, then an officer, abused the pitcher, but cleared three other officers of using excessive force.

Backe, a former Ball High and Galveston College star, said he was disappointed by the verdict, but was glad he was able to testify about the incident.

“It’s been almost six years since the event, since the beating, and I was finally able to tell my story,” Backe said.

Backe, who has spent much of the last six weeks sitting at a Houston federal courthouse with uniformed officers he said ended his Major League baseball career, said he feels pain every day from the injuries he allegedly suffered in October 2008.

“You go from competing at the highest level of baseball to — now what do I do with my life,” he said.

The island native, who said he now finds it difficult to feel safe visiting Galveston, said he intends to continue telling his story and pursuing the case.

“I didn’t get this far to give up on a deadlock,” he said.

No excessive force against bride’s brother

The jury’s mixed verdict Monday came after nine days of deliberations and 15 days of testimony presented in six weeks, with witnesses recalling events that took place during the course of minutes almost six years ago.

The allegations of police abuse stem from a series of incidents near The San Luis Resort’s H2O bar early Oct. 5, 2008, hours after a wedding.

Cole O’Balle, the brother of the bride, was allegedly intoxicated and belligerent with an officer at the H2O bar after the officer tried to arrest the then-19-year-old.

More than 30 on-duty officers responded to a call for backup at the resort, and Cole O’Balle was taken by air ambulance to a Houston hospital to be treated for injuries he sustained in the confrontation with police officers.

Jurors found that no excessive force was used against Cole O’Balle, who defense attorneys argued had struck an officer.

Jurors also determined no excessive force was used against wedding guests Joseph and Shannon Belluomini, who admittedly tried to prevent officers from arresting Cole O’Balle.

Father of the bride awarded $27,300

Gilbert O’Balle, the father of the bride, was awarded $27,300 for the physical pain and mental anguish he said was caused by Galveston police officers using pepper spray and a stun gun in the course of arresting him.

Gilbert O’Balle testified that he was pepper sprayed after being placed in handcuffs and dragged across the concrete by officers. Jurors found that he was subjected to excessive force by Capt. Frankland, who was a lieutenant at the time.

Three wedding guests awarded $21,600 total

Justin Packard, a wedding guest who said he was followed by police to a parking lot near the IHOP outside the H2O bar, was awarded $1,900 by jurors.

Packard testified he was thrown to the ground and pepper sprayed after being placed in handcuffs, despite complying with officers’ orders to leave the resort. Jurors found that officer Rutherford used excessive force against Packard, but within the scope of police training.

Another wedding guest, Chris Cornwell, was arrested after asking police to stop pushing his wife as officers cleared the bar. Cornwell claimed he was thrown to the ground, handcuffed and had his face pressed into the concrete after asking police to not touch his wife.

Jurors found officer Simpson used excessive force against Cornwell, who was awarded $10,200, jurors found.

Aaron Trevino, a wedding guest who could be heard screaming after being pepper sprayed in a video played for jurors, was awarded $9,500.

Officer Balli and Capt. Frankland used excessive force against Trevino, jurors found.

Contact reporter Alex Macon at 409-683-5241 or alex.macon@galvnews.com.

(24) comments

Don Ciaccio

Just like there are bad programmers & barbers, there are bad police officers. They should all be fired immediately along with Chief Porretto, who has a long history of being a hot head himself. Time to clean out the bad apples and the grocer who kept them in his barrel.

Evelyn Clark

Don23, I agree. I have been her over 70+ years and the Chief was a very bad apple.I guess its not what you know , its who you know.

I remember when the cheif took home a gun thay was in a bad Cop mess, and he was able to keep his JOB. [sad ][sad [sad]

Don Ciaccio

One wouldn't think an officer with a known past of brutality and being in trouble so often could become the chief of police. In this case, the explanation is very simple - Porretto's mom worked on Rosen's campaign. Follow the political payback dots.

Mike Meador

Yeah, they are always bad cops until you need one.....at your house, at your accident or at the melee going on at a wedding.

Jeff Smith

Capt. Frankland is a professional and one hell of a good cop who has served the Island with meritorious service.

Steve Fouga

U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison summed up the reaction to the jury’s verdict. “I suspect that both sides are in some measure disappointed,” Ellison said.

LOL!!! Was he giggling when he said it? The City is probably turning handsprings over this verdict!

I'm happy this turned out favorably for the cops. In my admittedly short time living here I've been nothing but impressed by Chief Porretto's department.

George Croix

Have it re-tried?
On what gounds?
Jury didn't give you what you wanted?
Is that against the law, too.....?

Don Ciaccio

If the jury deadlocked on Backe's part, he is entitled to have the case re-tried. It's how the law works.

George Croix

Thank you for your reply.
If only I were a lawyer, inhouse or outhouse, I'd have known that.
Personally, I've never been snockered enough to have the Police need to get into close proximity, so have no experience at post lawsuit followups.
Here's hoping Backe gets a new jury that awards him everything that he honestly has coming to him...

Susan Smith

What baseball career??

Don Ciaccio

Our next multi-million $$$ lawsuit is coming.

Kim Etheridge

Holy $#!+.

Bruce Blankenship

The jury found that Capt. Byron Frankland, Sgt. Douglas Balli and officers Dannie Simpson II and John Rutherford used excessive force against members of the wedding party. ENOUGH SAID, then why were the plaintiffs not awarded the money requested in their suit for the mental and physical anguish they have suffered and continued for the past five years. I personally know a lot of the plaintiffs, they are awesome citizens in our county.
Yes, there are very good Galveston Police Officers, but the officers who arrived this night at H2O let their testerone overcome their reactions due to the idle time after Hurricane Ike. It is a shame, the police sadly mistreated any human being who got in their way. I remember the police roughed up a Federal Employee assigned to Galveston for Hurricane Ike Relief.

George Croix

I would hope the lower award was because the jury decided that trying to get money off anguish is not as close to justice as having one's actual losses made whole, and did so AFTER deciding, in their opinion, that was the cases here. I hope it was not just a knee jerk due to some of the other claims made in this County.
Unfortunately, the peopel guilty of inflating or even outright lying about their 'harm' have begun to poison the well for those who actually deserve to be compensated.
I didn't hear any of the testimony, and know none of the plaintiffs personally, so have no idea whether or to what degree compensation was warranted in this case. But I do know for an eyewitness fact that, in this county, too many 'awards' have been given to flat out liars looking to cash in. THAT fact cannot help but influence juries at some point. It's a shame that scammers may well prevent honest people, like some of these may well have been, from getting what they deserve.
And a bigger shame that people sworn to uphold the law, justice, represent them.

Miceal O'Laochdha

Chief Porretto is one of the better police officers I have had interaction with in my life. Not just in Galveston but, worldwide. Fair, reasonable and trying to be helpful to law-abiding citizens. Bob Pierce is another. Galveston is fortunate to have Porretto as Chief for the City and Pierce as Chief for the Port. Period.

If one choses to argue and fight with policemen, whether shortly after a hurricane or any other time, that is one's own prerogative but; accept the consequences of that choice. Usually they lie somewhere be unpleasant and disastrous.

I would definitely not say that only a drunken fool would argue and fight with the police (may have done it once or twice myself, can't remember) but, only a naïve man-child with an exaggerated sense of entitlement and importance would fail to anticipate and accept the inevitable result.

Don Ciaccio

They used excessive force on a weddint party. Period. So said a jury. Take a look at the link I posted from Youtube. Watch the video that will get us sued again because Porretto won't fire rogue officers that assault citizens. Look up the Ryan Sullivan Case. Three of our finest assaulted & hospitalized a promenient business man. We have quite a history of rogue officers that the chief sees no problem with, manly because he was one to. Check his history. We need a new police chief. Rosen knowingly put in a hot head as a political payback.

Don Ciaccio

I agree Gecroix

Testing Free

Everybody wanna be Rodney King and cash in millions.

Everybody wanna be Jim Adler and sue big.

Keep your money and be happy and get a job.

Backe's career started ending when he started to suck. The only thing he was known for was coming from the Whitecaps. if he were from Mobile no one would've knew his name.

Stuart Crouch

True & all relevant points. Backe should just go away.

Chris Gimenez

The only thing that provides an impetus to correct abuses by law enforcement is the continued awarding of huge damages to plaintiffs. When city leaders are choking on the payouts they'll finally reorganize LE leadership and make the changes. Otherwise, it's a "look the other way" problem.


George Croix

I dunno...I just can't go along with the tomfoolery so common these days of exhorbitant 'awards' for 'damages' that in many cases really are just the imaginings of the 'harmed', if not the outright mendacity of them. Saw personally and/or heard of TOO MANY absolutely PHONY scammers in the last few years ripping off others, just because some shyster encouraged them to do so, and they were of low enough character to be led. THOUSANDS of them, in just this PAnt little county.
How about arranging it such that the accused civil servant, if found to be at fault in court, is FIRED, and the person REALLY harmed made whole, not rich.
That saves the taxpayers from having to fund somebody 'neck bracing' for the jury and a bankroll, saves them paying the salary of a bad apple any more, and still allows the plaintiff to be compensated for their true loss.

Island Lover

Unless the civil servant was only doing their job and the " harmed" person is just scamming everyone. Juries sometimes get things wrong.

George Croix

Point taken.
However, the imperfect justice system is the only one we've got.
What would you suggest as an alternative way to remove bad apple civil servants?
No doubt there is more than one way to skin a legal cat that would work satisfactorily.
For that matter I'd like to see bad apple scammers get their just deserts, too, along with their facilitators.
I freely admit my opinion is HEAVILY influenced, if not outright prejudiced, by my own experience(s) as an eyewitness to and even particiapnt in events that were later subverted for illegitimate personal gain by unscrupulous people, and their legal representation.
So, that's just me....

Carlos Ponce

Hey, how much is a Brandon Backe signed baseball selling for now? My sister has a bunch of them.

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