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Cotton Suit Going to Trial 

Family of man who died in custody looking for over $5 million in damages from city, county

Over three years after the violent altercation with police and others that landed Martin Cotton II in Humboldt County Jail, where he died of head injuries, a lawsuit brought by his relatives is nearing trial in Oakland federal court.

The suit, which was brought by Cotton's daughter and his father, charges that officers with the Eureka Police Department delivered the blows that ended up killing Cotton several hours later. In addition, it charges that the policemen and correctional officers employed by the Humboldt County Jail failed to get him the medical attention that could have saved his life.

Cotton's relatives are seeking $5 million in compensation, plus an unspecified amount in punitive damages. Named as defendants in the suit are city and county government, as well as a dozen individual EPD officers and jail employees.

But the defendants have a starkly different understanding of what happened that day -- Aug. 9, 2007 -- when EPD officers were called to the Eureka Rescue Mission to stop a brawl that had erupted between several men, including the 26-year-old Cotton, who was later determined to be under the influence of a large amount of LSD. They say that the blow to the head that left Cotton with the fatal subdural hematoma was not delivered by police officers but one of the people who Cotton had been brawling with prior to their arrival. Furthermore, they say that county jail personnel had no way of knowing about his injury -- partly due to the fact that such injuries are not evident to the naked eye, and partly due to Cotton's advanced state of LSD intoxication.

Reached Monday at his office, local attorney Bill Bragg, who is representing county government and jail personnel in the suit, said a settlement in advance of the date that the trail is scheduled to commence -- Jan. 10, 2011 -- appears unlikely.

"Our position is that the county is not liable for anything anyway, so we would not consider making an offer unless it was less than the cost of defending the case, and with no admission of liability," Bragg said.

There were many unanswered questions and oddities surrounding Cotton's death back in 2007. His altercation at the Eureka Rescue Mission that day, when he was already deeply under the influence of psychedelic drugs, occurred just hours after he had been released from jail. Despite his brain injury, an outside medical examiner originally issued a report claiming that Cotton's death was due an LSD overdose -- a determination that was later rejected as having no basis in scientific literature. And though the Eureka Police Department has always insisted that its officers did not strike Cotton in the head, it was never clear how he would have otherwise received the fatal injury. For a time, local officials supposed that he injured himself by banging his head on the walls of his cell after he was rebooked into jail that day. (For a complete look back at the case, see "Who Killed Martin Cotton?" March 27, 2008.)

In a brief filed with the court, Los Angeles-area attorney Vicki Sarmiento, who is representing Cotton's relatives in the suit, lays out in great detail the case she will present at trial. (Sarmiento did not return a phone call seeking comment.)

As police arrived at the Eureka Rescue Mission to break up the fight Cotton was involved in, they saw him assault the Mission's site manager, Bryan Hall. Both sides agree that officers thereafter used great force in an attempt to place Cotton under arrest, including pepper spray, batons and blows with their fists and knees. Cotton was struggling with the officers to such an extent that they believed, at the time, that he must have been on methamphetamine.

But there the stories diverge. The plaintiffs' trial brief states that they have two witnesses who say that they saw officers deliver "hammer fists" to Cotton's head in the struggle to detain him, as did some witnesses the Journal spoke to at the time. The city has always denied that its officers struck Cotton's head at all. Nancy Delaney, attorney for the City of Eureka and its police officers, said Tuesday that the plaintiffs' witnesses were not in the best position to see the struggle. Their view of the fight was obstructed and distant, she said. In her own trial brief, Delaney writes that officers were attempting to secure Cotton's head, but struck no blows.

Furthermore, Delaney said, the testimony of the plaintiffs' witnesses was unanimously contradicted by the people at the Rescue Mission itself -- people who might not always be expected to support the position of law enforcement officials, she noted.

"Interestingly, all of the people standing close by, where they had an unobstructed view, indicated that none of them saw an officer hit Mr. Cotton in the head at any time," she said.

Rather, Delaney will seek to show that the blow to the head was delivered before the police ever arrived. In her trial brief, she lays out the city's case that a fellow Rescue Mission patron -- one Kevin Healy, currently incarcerated at Avenal State Prison -- hit Cotton in the head during the fight that cops were called to break up.

The trial brief states that Bryan Hall will testify that during the fight he saw Healy strike Cotton in the head hard enough to knock him to the ground. Also, a local businessman -- Richard Bradley of Two Street Music -- will testify that Healy later came into the store in a splint, and told Bradley that he had broken his hand punching Cotton. (Healy himself was deposed in prison, but the judge in the case ruled that Sarmiento had engaged in misconduct during the deposition, and so that evidence will not be introduced in the trial.)

The second basic matter in the suit -- the question of why Cotton did not receive medical treatment in jail -- is likewise in dispute. According to the defendants, neither the EPD officers nor the correctional officers knew that Cotton had been struck in the head, and that he displayed no signs of brain injury. On the way to jail and throughout the booking process, they say, he continued to struggle vigorously against them. He only laid down some time after being locked in a padded detoxification cell -- not an uncommon action for someone sobering up, they argue, and therefore no immediate cause for concern. Cotton, they say, never requested medical care.

But the plaintiffs charge that there were plenty of signs that Cotton was in distress, including video evidence that Cotton was woozy and stumbling. They further allege that the county violated its own written procedures when it booked Cotton into the detox cell without medical prescreening, and charge that arresting officers should have indicated to jail officials that Cotton had been involved in a violent altercation. Such factors should have triggered medical evaluation, which might have discovered Cotton's injury, they say.

The Cotton family's lawsuit charges the defendants with wrongful death, assault and battery, and abrogation of Martin Cotton's constitutional rights to due process and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure.

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Hank Sims

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