Monday, February 1, 2010

Newark pays $60,000 to settle police beating death case

On June 4, 2009, Walter Lee of Sherman Avenue, Newark accepted $60,000 from the City of Newark (Essex County) to settle a claim that Newark police had beaten his son, Warren Lee, to death on October 12 2006.

According to the lawsuit filed in Federal District Court on December 12, 2007, the deceased man was sitting in a parked car when he was approached by Newark Police Lieutenant Neil Minovich and Sergeant Anthony Costa. The suit claims that the two officers, who believed there to be illegal drugs in the car, "became extremely violent, viciously breathing and punching Warren Lee despite no provocation on the part of Warren Lee." According to the suit, even though Lee starting gasping for air, the two officers would not stop beating him or call for medical assistance. When witnesses tried to come to Lee's aid, Minovich and Costa reportedly told them "he's faking." According to the suit, Lee lost consciousness and was later pronounced dead.

The suit alleges that an autopsy of Lee's body disclosed that he had choked to death due to an obstruction in his airway and that there were "abrasions, contusions and swelling in various areas of Warren Lee's body which were suffered at the hands of Minovich and Costa during the arrest." The complaint also alleges "upon information and belief that Minovich and Costa have been the subject of complaints of excessive force, corruption and/or racial bias against African American individuals."

But, an October 14, 2006 Star Ledger article states that police authorities claimed that Lee had "choked to death on a bag of drugs he swallowed . . . while police tried to arrest him." The article states that "as [the officers] approached, Lee tried to swallow a plastic sandwich bag containing smaller bags of heroin and cocaine. Lee started to gag, and the officers tried pounding on his back and doing the Heimlich maneuver. They also called an ambulance."

A January 11, 2007 Star Ledger article states that "Lee's family does not dispute that he choked on a bag of drugs." But, the family's filed Notice of Claim stated that "Even when it became clear that Mr. Lee was injured, was choking and/or gasping for air and was in need of medical assistance or aide, the police officers continued to beat Mr. Lee, finally throwing him out of the car and onto the street."

"Essentially, they left him there to die," Lee's attorney Marc Albert was quoted as saying.

The case is captioned Lee v. City of Newark et al, Case No. 07-cv-4909. The plaintiff's lawyer was Christopher A. Seeger, Esq. of Newark. The lawsuit and settlement agreement are on-line here.

None of Lee's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement expressly states that the $60,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Newark or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that defendants, and perhaps their insurers, for whatever reason, decided that they would rather pay Lee and his lawyer $60,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants' decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial--it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.