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LANGLEY PARK, MD - In a case that has special resonance against the backdrop of events in Ferguson, Missouri, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, the Public Justice Center, and the Caucus of African American Leaders this week asked the Maryland Court of Appeals to step in to ensure that victims of police abuses can hold law enforcement accountable when the government does not. The filing came in the form of a "friend of the court" brief in a case involving the malicious killing of an unarmed Latino man by a white Prince George's County police officer with a record of past misconduct.
A Prince George's County jury found that police officer Steven Jackson maliciously beat Manuel Espina, then shot him to death, awarding his wife and son $10 million in damages to account for their devastating loss. However, the reviewing courts slashed the jury's award to just $200,000, reasoning that awards against the government are subject to strict damages caps, even for the most egregious civil rights violations. The ACLU brief argues that applying the caps to these types of cases would severely undermine the civil rights guarantees of the Maryland Constitution.
"Police abuse is one of the most significant civil rights and racial justice issues of our time," said Sonia Kumar, ACLU Staff Attorney. "In this case, the government not only failed to criminally charge the police officer who killed Mr. Espina, but kept him on the job, and also defended his actions in court. A jury disagreed. For the courts to allow the government to avoid its responsibility to Mr. Espina's family here would send a message that we don't take police abuse seriously, even where the abuse is so egregious that it ends in death."
On August 16, 2008, Manuel Espina was with friends outside his apartment complex in Langley Park, as his wife and son were preparing a birthday party for him. He was violating no laws. Officer Jackson, who had a documented history of excessive force including two incidents in the previous three months, told the men to disperse, followed the men inside, and then brutally assaulted Mr. Espina before shooting him in front of his son. When Mr. Espina's son attempted to give his father CPR, he was himself arrested and imprisoned. A recording of the 911 call reveals Jackson cursing at the Espina family after he shot Mr. Espina.
Jackson was never criminally charged for his actions. He is still employed with the Prince George's police.
The brief filed by civil rights groups argues that from its founding, the State of Maryland has sought to guarantee its people strong protections against governmental abuse of power, and full remedies when such abuses do occur. Accepting the rulings of the lower courts in this case would be a departure from this tradition. In making these arguments, the brief traces the history and wording of the Maryland Constitution's guarantee of "justice and right" to those who fall victim to governmental abuse of power: "Allowing the government to avoid its responsibility to remedy Mr. Espina's shocking killing by police would render the Framer's Article 19 promise of ‘justice and right' a nullity and inflict yet another agonizing wrong upon the Espina family."
"Given what has happen with the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, Missouri, the Espina case is not only timely, but will serve to set an important legal precedent in the State of Maryland," said Carl O. Snowden, Convener of the Caucus of African American Leaders.
"The Public Justice Center hopes that the Court of Appeals will enforce the strong protections of the Maryland Constitution and reverse the lower courts' reduction of the jury's award to the Espina family," said Anna Jagelewski, Francis D. Murnaghan, Jr. Appellate Advocacy Fellow at the Public Justice Center. "The government must be held fully accountable for the actions of police officers who abuse the power they are given. The words of the Maryland Constitution will ring hollow if there is no meaningful remedy for their violation."