A D.C. Superior Court jury ordered the District yesterday to pay $950,000 in damages to survivors of a Northwest Washington man who, according to the survivors' attorney, died when D.C. police officers used "excessive force" to subdue him during a 1982 domestic quarrel.
Attorney Charles Parsons, who represents the survivors, charged that Ronald M. Galloway died after a police officer used a "choke hold" to wrestle him to the ground and then two officers held a nightstick to the back of his neck, pressing him against a cardboard box, for at least four minutes. Parsons argued in the civil trial that Galloway, then 36, died of asphyxiation when pressure on his neck cut off his oxygen.
Lawyers for the city denied during the trial that the officers, Loren Sarbacher and Stephen Beach, used excessive force during the incident on Feb. 9, 1982, when they were called to an apartment at 1431 Somerset Place NW by a neighbor.
They asserted that the officers did not use the nightstick to apply pressure to Galloway's neck and that Galloway's neck was never pressed against the box. Instead, they argued that he died of an "underlying heart disease" aggravated by the stress of the struggle with police and by drugs, including PCP, found in his system by an autopsy.
The death was investigated by police and evidence was presented to a grand jury, which determined that no criminal charges should be placed against the officers, according to Bill Jepsen, the police department's assistant general counsel. After its own inquiry, the department determined that the officers were "acting in full compliance" with the law and that no disciplinary action should be taken against them, Jepsen said yesterday.
At the trial in D.C. Superior Court, Parsons and lawyers for the D.C. corporation counsel's office presented two versions of how the incident occurred.
Parsons said that Galloway's then-7-year-old daughter Rhonica let the officers into the apartment, and that Galloway yelled at them to leave and started pushing Sarbacher out. Sarbacher, he charged, then grabbed Galloway around the neck with a choke hold and wrestled him to the floor, where both officers held the nightstick at the back of his neck.
Meanwhile, Parsons said, Carol Jackson Galloway, whom Parsons identified as Galloway's wife, yelled, "Stop, you're killing him," and screamed that Galloway was "turning blue." But the officers continued to hold him while they called on their radios for help, Parsons said. When another officer arrived, he found that Galloway still had a pulse but was not breathing. He was later pronounced dead.
Lawyers for the District, however, argued in court that when the officers arrived, Galloway attempted to shut them out while Carol Jackson Galloway, who they maintain was Galloway's girlfriend, screamed for them to get him out of the apartment. Galloway, they argued, attacked one of the officers and the struggle began. The officers then wrestled him to the floor but were unable to handcuff him until assistance arrived. They did not realize a box was beneath him and they did not use a nightstick at his neck, the lawyers asserted.
The jury deliberated for several hours Monday and yesterday before awarding the damages to Galloway's estate and Carol and Rhonica Galloway.