A federal court jury issued an $890,000 verdict Thursday against a veteran member of a secretive Los Angeles Police Department surveillance unit, finding that the officer used excessive force when he ran over a South-Central Los Angeles man during a 1989 kidnaping stakeout.
The jury unanimously found that Detective Michael G. Sirk of the LAPD's Special Investigations Section violated the civil rights of Henry Earl Bradford, a 37-year-old cosmetologist. Bradford was crippled when he was struck by the officer's car after picking up a ransom package.
A separate trial is expected to be held later this year before U.S. District Judge David Kenyon to determine whether the city and Police Chief Daryl F. Gates also are responsible for the injuries to Bradford, who served a year in prison for his role in the kidnaping.
Bradford's attorney, Donald Cook of Santa Monica, said after the verdict that he was "elated for Mr. Bradford."
"He was made a cripple for life," Cook said. "This may help him get his life back in order."
The jury awarded Bradford $850,000 in compensatory damages and $40,000 in punitive damages.
Cook said the jury's decision in the civil case bore out findings, reported in July by the Christopher Commission, of excessive use of force by LAPD officers. The commission's chairman, Warren Christopher, also criticized the city attorney's handling of civil suits stemming from such incidents.
Before the trial, Cook said, he told Assistant City Atty. Honey Lewis that he would settle the case for $100,000. "She looked at me, laughed and said, 'It might as well be a million dollars.' "
Lewis was not available for comment, nor was City Atty. James Hahn.
But Assistant City Atty. Thomas Hokinson, who heads the office's liability unit, said he was disappointed with the verdict and that the office planned to ask for a new trial. He declined comment when asked if it would have been wise to settle the case.
Bradford's suit stemmed from the kidnaping of a Ladera Heights woman, Sharon Annette Langford, and her 4-year-old son more than two years ago.
The kidnapers contacted Langford's mother and demanded a large sum of money and cocaine for the safe release of the victims. After she made ransom arrangements with the kidnapers, Langford's mother contacted police.
The police tape-recorded calls to Langford's brother, Thomas, who had agreed to act as a liaison between his mother and the kidnapers.
An unknown suspect "repeatedly threatened to kill both of the victims," in a telephone call to the brother, according to a report of the incident by Gates to the Police Commission in October, 1989.
Arrangements were made for ransom packages of money and cocaine to be dropped in shrubbery on the west side of the Harbor Freeway, just south of Gage Avenue.
About 8:30 p.m. on March 14, 1989, Bradford picked up one of the ransom packages, walked to a nearby vehicle and gave the package to Cornell Smith, one of the men in the vehicle. Then he left on foot.
Bradford said Smith had offered him a small amount of money to pick up the package.
At the trial, Bradford and several police officers agreed on some of what occurred after the pickup, but gave conflicting testimony on other points. Bradford said he walked away from the car; police said he ran.
Bradford, who was unarmed, testified that the police car first struck him while he was on the sidewalk. Police testified that he was in the street.
Cook said the police testimony of how and where Bradford was struck was contradicted by the physical evidence, and that the jury's verdict showed they did not believe the officers.
What was uncontested was that Sirk twice ran into Bradford with his police car. Bradford's right leg was broken in several places.
Bradford said that his leg was in a cast and that he used a mechanical device for many months. He now walks with a cane or a crutch.
Officers testified that Sirk decided to use the car to prevent Bradford from fleeing because the alternative was to shoot at him--which could injure innocent people. They also testified that they feared that if Bradford escaped he would notify other suspects and the kidnaping victims would be killed.
Shortly after Bradford was struck by the police car, another officer, Larry Winston, shot and killed Bobby Harris, another of the men in the suspects' car.
Smith fled the scene and was later arrested and booked on murder charges. The district attorney's office declined to file charges, however, saying there was insufficient evidence.
Bradford was arrested and pleaded guilty to one count of being an accessory after the fact to kidnaping. He served a year in state prison and was paroled, his attorney said.
On Thursday, Cook said the verdict was particularly noteworthy because jurors were aware that Bradford was a felon. "The jury was able to put aside his conviction and focus on the issue of force," he said. "The city attorney kept trying to smear Bradford."