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.