YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Jury Clears Long Beach Officers, Deputies in Prisoner's Death

March 17, 1988|CHRIS WOODYARD | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — A federal jury has cleared five Long Beach police officers and two Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies after a monthlong trial in a lawsuit brought by the family of a Lakewood man who died while in their custody.

The six-member jury deliberated seven hours before deciding last week in favor of the city of Long Beach and Los Angeles County, whose attorneys contended that Stuart Harrison, 40, died from a heart attack when he was arrested at his home on Jan. 11, 1985.

Harrison's family, which filed a violation-of-civil-rights suit seeking $36 million in damages shortly after the death, contended that the father of three died as a result of neck injuries caused by a police officer.

The U.S. District Court trial in Los Angeles centered on what caused Harrison, a laboratory technician at a Torrance firm, to shake violently as he lay across the hood of a patrol car, lose consciousness and die two days later. He was being placed under arrest on suspicion of kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon.

Assistant City Atty. Robert E. Shannon said he refuted a coroner's finding that Harrison died of "homicide or (death at the hands of another)" from bleeding due to neck injuries.

"We produced expert evidence that proved the coroner was flat wrong," Shannon said. The coroner's office had no comment.

Harrison's widow, Lynn Harrison, said she is disappointed in the verdict and believes that jurors might have been confused by days of detailed medical testimony.

"What was important to me was that justice was done and it was not done," Harrison said. "So little of the essence of everything that went on was allowed into the trial."

She was, however, left with one small victory: The county settled its part of the case on behalf of the Sheriff's Department for $20,000 before the jury rendered its verdict. "It's not a lot of money," Shannon said, "but it's $20,000 more than they (the county) would have had to pay if they had waited 24 hours."

Stuart Harrison was suspected of kidnapping a 19-year-old woman near the U.S. Naval Hospital on Carson Street after giving the woman a ride in small pickup truck, according to police reports.

The woman told police that Harrison brandished a small knife and inflicted a minor cut below her right breast. She said he then asked if he could fondle her, but did not after she told him she was bleeding. She said he released her near the Long Beach Naval Station several miles away, where she had planned to meet her boyfriend.

Harrison's family disputes any accusation that he was involved in a kidnapping or assault.

A Navy corpsman who subsequently treated the woman confirmed in a court deposition that she had been wounded, but he described the puncture as "a scratch, something you would put a Band-Aid over." The corpsman said the woman was upset about her boyfriend going home on leave. "She seemed more upset about that than anything," the corpsman said. The woman also first told Navy Shore Patrol officers that she was raped, then later said she was assaulted with a knife.

After Harrison and his wife had finished dinner that evening and were watching "Miami Vice" on television, police appeared at their Lakewood home. Harrison was placed under arrest and led away in handcuffs as his wife told officers, "No, this is a mistake," according to reports.

Police said Harrison seemed "disoriented, but coherent and cooperative" when arrested. Minutes later, while under the control of Long Beach Officer Randy Hausauer, Harrison suffered the apparent seizure and was taken to Los Altos Hospital without ever regaining consciousness. Deputy Medical Examiner Sara K. Reddy made the finding of homicide based on an autopsy she conducted. The examination found that Harrison had sustained two tears inside his neck and that his spinal column was compressed and had hemorrhaged "due to trauma of the neck."

Although Reddy did not appear at the trial, Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner Ronald Kornblum testified to the findings and conclusions of the autopsy.

Shannon said he presented William Eckart, a Wichita, Kan., forensic pathologist and recognized expert on trauma, who testified that the injuries to Harrison were inconsistent with trauma. The severing of the arteries could have resulted from cutting during the autopsy.

Neuropathologist Hideo Itabashi of the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, testified that what the coroner's deputy interpreted as trauma could have been normal changes in the brain and spinal cord resulting from Harrison being on a respirator for two days while brain dead, according to Shannon.

"(Officer) Hausauer was subjected to 3 1/2 years of uncertainty simply because of the findings of a deputy medical examiner who didn't understand what she saw," the lawyer said.

Besides Hausauer, the other Long Beach officers named in the suit were Kenneth Quaack, Vincent Platt, Dale Mukanos and Sgt. David Bauer. The sheriff's deputies named were Frank Matillo and Richard Burlingame.

Lynn Harrison, in an emotional telephone interview this week, said that her life remains shattered from the incident. Her late husband's two sons from a previous marriage now live with their mother in San Diego. They are ages 16 and 17.

Harrison, 39, lives with the couple's own son, Mathew, 8, and said she is trying make ends meet as a medical assistant in Redondo Beach. She said she and her son may be forced to move out of their Lakewood home because of a recent $150-a-month rent increase.

The jury, she said, did not get a clear view of the case.

"The police looked like Boy Scouts in court," she said. "They were very sweet and very calm."

Los Angeles Times Articles