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Excessive Force by Police Killed Prisoner, Jurors in Lawsuit Are Told

September 03, 1987|STEPHANIE O'NEILL | Times Staff Writer

Excessive force by Glendale police caused the death six years ago of a Pasadena man arrested on suspicion of robbery, an attorney for the man's mother told a jury this week.

Van Kenneth Leary Jr., 28, a computer operator for Lockheed, suffocated in jail Sept. 12, 1981, when "six or seven" police officers piled on top of him after he ran out of his cell and locked himself in another room, attorney J. Michael Flanagan said during opening arguments of a wrongful-death lawsuit against the City of Glendale.

"About 600 to 700 pounds of weight was on the individual as he lay face down on the floor," Flanagan said. "When they got up, they noticed he wasn't moving."

Police said they believed that Leary was under the influence of the powerful hallucinogenic drug PCP, which can cause mental disorders and sometimes gives its users unusual strength. Officials deny unnecessary force was used to subdue Leary.

Testimony in the trial began Tuesday afternoon before Glendale Superior Court Judge Joseph R. Kalin The trial is expected to last three weeks. The jury will decide whether Leary's mother, Francis M. Hendricks of Altadena, is entitled to damages.

Flanagan told jurors that coroner's examinations will prove Leary was not under the influence of drugs, as the city contends. Rather, Leary had "some psychological problems" that may have caused his erratic behavior after his arrest, Flanagan said.

Autopsy Report

The autopsy report showed that Leary suffered hemorrhages in the small capillaries on the exterior of his left eye. Flanagan said he will provide evidence that suffocation causes such physical damage.

At 11:30 p.m. on Sept. 11, 1981, Glendale police Officer Dean Bowman spotted Leary walking along Brand Boulevard and believed that Leary fit the description of a man who took $500 at gunpoint from a Glendale man earlier that night.

When Bowman began questioning Leary, Leary refused to cooperate, prompting the officer to finally wrestle him to the ground, according to police reports.

For several minutes, Bowman alone tried to restrain Leary, police said. When a second officer arrived, police said, the two of them handcuffed Leary and took him to jail. A police search of Leary turned up only a package of cigarettes and $19, police reports stated.

Several hours later, Leary was placed in a cell where he stripped and began screaming, Flanagan said.

When Bowman and another officer opened his cell door, Leary ran out and locked himself in a nearby conference room, the attorney said. Jail alarms sounded, summoning several other officers. Within minutes, the officers were able to coax Leary to open the door, Flanagan said.

The officers then jumped on Leary, even though he was then cooperating, the attorney said.

Bowman said Tuesday that Leary's behavior, even before the arrest, led him to believe that Leary was under the influence of PCP.

When first questioned on Brand Boulevard, Leary became agitated, Bowman said. "At one point, he turned to me and said his name was Van Jesus . . . and he also said something about Satan," the officer testified.

However, under questioning by Flanagan, Bowman said he later tested Leary's eyes for signs of PCP use and found only "a blank stare," not the vertical movement of the eyeballs often caused by the drug.

"So you weren't able to make a determination at that time that he was under the influence?" Flanagan asked.

"I believed he was at that time," responded Bowman, who joined the Glendale Police Department in 1980. "But, whether he was or not, my experience and training was very minimal."

Acting Strangely

Once alone in his jail cell, Leary began acting strangely, making animal-like sounds and jumping up and down, Bowman said.

Bowman said that, when he and another officer opened the cell door, a naked Leary charged them, swinging his shirt--which he had dunked in the cell toilet.

The other officer pushed Leary back into the cell, but Leary charged them again and punched Bowman in the chin before running out of the cell and into the conference room, the officer testified.

Leary continued his erratic behavior inside the conference room until he finally opened the door, the officer testified.

Bowman told the court that he grabbed Leary by the hair while another officer wrapped his arm around Leary's neck in an effort to restrain him. When Leary fell face-first to the floor, Bowman testified, he stood, with both feet, on Leary's left shoulder. Six other officers and a jailer were also trying to hold down Leary as they applied a leather restraint to his wrists and ankles.

Movement Stopped

But, despite the weight on top of him, Leary was still able to lift Bowman "three to four inches off the ground," the officer testified. After the restraints were applied, Leary wriggled for about 30 more seconds before his movement stopped, Bowman said.

Leary was taken to Glendale Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Senior Assistant City Atty. Scott Howard, representing Glendale, will present opening arguments in the civil trial after Flanagan completes presentation of the plaintiff's case.

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