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Judge Drops Lawsuit in '81 Glendale Inmate Death

September 10, 1987|STEPHANIE O'NEILL | Times Staff Writer

A Glendale Superior Court judge has dismissed a wrongful-death lawsuit filed against the City of Glendale by the mother of a Pasadena computer operator who died in police custody six years ago.

Judge Joseph R. Kalin dismissed the suit because of a 1963 state law that shields public agencies from liability for injury or death of prisoners.

Scott Howard, senior assistant attorney for Glendale, called attention to the statute Friday, four days into the civil trial, and Kalin granted the dismissal Tuesday.

Kalin chided Howard for not bringing up the issue sooner.

" . . . There is some concern in the court's mind that there might have been an abuse of the court system in not having handled this matter sooner," Kalin said.

Howard said afterward that he discovered the statute only last week.

Suit Cited Excessive Force

The suit was filed by Francis M. Hendricks of Altadena seeking unspecified damages for the Sept. 12, 1981, death of her son, Van Kenneth Leary Jr., 28, a Lockheed employee. Leary was arrested Sept. 11 of that year on suspicion of robbery. The lawsuit contended that excessive force by police caused Leary's death.

"I just feel that justice wasn't done," Hendricks said after the dismissal. "My son was murdered, and the police know they murdered him, and they're getting away scot-free, which is wrong."

In opening statements last week, Hendricks' attorney, J. Michael Flanagan, told the jury that Leary died of suffocation when eight officers piled on him, pinning him face down to the floor for eight to 10 minutes. The officers testified that they were trying to hold Leary down to apply leather restraints to his wrists and ankles after Leary ran from his cell and locked himself in another room.

Carried $19

A Glendale police officer testified that he arrested Leary after spotting him walking along Brand Boulevard shortly after a Glendale man was robbed of $500 at gunpoint.

The officer said he believed Leary fit the description given by the victim. However, Leary was carrying only a pack of cigarettes and $19 at the time of his arrest, according to the police report. Police were unable to find a gun or the stolen money in subsequent searches along Brand Boulevard that night of the arrest and the following day, police reports stated.

Leary's mother said she believes her son was falsely arrested.

"My son was an honest man," Hendricks said. "He had everything going for him."

Flanagan conceded that the statute applied to his client's case, but nevertheless called the dismissal unjust.

'Doesn't Seem Fair'

"Applying it to this situation just doesn't seem fair," Flanagan said. "Based upon strict interpretation of the statue, they could take some guy who's brought in on a drunk charge and weighs 120 pounds and put him in jail with a 250-pound homicidal maniac, and he could be killed, and nobody is responsible."

Police officers who testified in the trial said they believed Leary was under the influence of PCP, a powerful hallucinogenic drug that sometimes infuses its users with unusual strength.

Under questioning by Flanagan, the officers testified that seven police officers and a jailer did jump on top of Leary to subdue him. One officer told the court he stood with both feet on Leary's left shoulder and another testified to pressing a knee between Leary's shoulder blades. But all the officers who testified denied using excessive force.

Tests by the Los Angeles County coroner's office turned up no PCP in Leary's system, autopsy reports stated. The coroner found broken blood vessels on the exterior of Leary's eyes. A forensic pathologist called to the stand testified that suffocation caused the vessels to burst.

Flanagan, however, said he would recommend that his client not file an appeal because jurors told him afterward that they believed the officers were within the limits of necessary force.

"I'm not going to win this case in Glendale," he said. "It's a pretty conservative jury."

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