Federal lawsuit alleges police brutality

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A civil rights lawsuit was filed in federal court on Sept. 14 by a Butterfield woman who claims she was a victim of police brutality.

Melissa A. Norman is seeking damages following an attack that occurred July 23 inside the Barry County Jail. The 40-year-old woman claims she was handcuffed, leg shackled, hog tied, blindfolded and tasered numerous times by officers with the Cassville Police Department and the Barry County Sheriff's Department.

The federal lawsuit is being handled by Cassville attorneys John A. Lewright and Robert Foulke.

Defendants named in the case include Cassville police officers Michael Moore, Willie Stephens, Steve Vulmer and Bill Watkins and Barry County Sheriff's Deputies Kris Buckholz, Joey Griffith and Lawrence House.

Barry County Sheriff Mick Epperly and Cassville Police Chief Lonnie McCullough, Sr., are also named as defendants in the case, because of their supervisory roles. Neither man was present during the alleged attack.

Following the July 23 incident, three Cassville police officers resigned and the deputies were placed on paid administrative leave pending an independent investigation by the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

Epperly said the investigation is still ongoing, but that the three officers involved in the alleged attack are no longer employed by the Sheriff's Department. One deputy was fired and the other two resigned.

The incident involving Norman began when she contacted a law enforcement officer at his home and told him she as having "personal difficulties." The officer called an ambulance, and Norman was transported to St. John's Hospital-Cassville.

Norman said when she arrived at the hospital, she was given medicine that made her vomit and she voluntarily left the hospital feeling "upset and confused."

After leaving the hospital, Norman said she was apprehended by a group of law enforcement officers who she said tackled, handcuffed and leg shackled her and then tied the handcuffs and leg shackles together behind her back.

Norman said she was thrown into the back of a patrol car and left lying on her stomach in the back seat during the drive to the Barry County Jail and then "jerked" out of the patrol car and thrown onto the ground inside the jail's booking area.

Once inside, Norman said the officers circled around her and began taunting her. At that point, Norman said she began hitting her head on the ground.

Norman then claims the officers tasered her in the stomach multiple times even though she screamed for them to stop. Norman said the officers lifted her shirt to taser her directly on the skin, which caused burns on her stomach.

After the alleged attack, Norman was placed in a jail cell with four other women. She remained there until the next morning when she was taken to St. John's Regional Medical Center.

"This case upsets me tremendously," said Lewright. "It's a sad commentary on law enforcement. The use of a taser against someone who was completely defenseless is wrong, especially when the individual wasn't even under arrest. It's appalling."

Epperly admits the incident did occur but his version of what happened that night differs from Norman's account. He said the officers used handcuffs and shackles to keep Norman from harming herself. He said Norman was "combative" and officers used a dry fire taser to subdue her for her own protection.

According to Epperly, Norman was not blindfolded. He said the officers put a towel around her head because she was trying to bang her head against the floor.

"She did become very, very combative, but the deputies and officers did not follow proper policy and procedures established by the Barry County Sheriff's Department," Epperly said in an earlier interview.

The incident involving Norman was caught on videotape. Epperly said the Highway Patrol is currently in possession of the videotape. Lewright said he has requested a copy of the tape but has not been provided with one.

The defendants in the case were served on Monday and have 20 days to file a response. Lewright is demanding a jury trial be held.

According to court documents filed by Lewright in federal court, Norman claims that her civil rights as guaranteed under the Fourth and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution were violated. She contends she was subjected to "excessive and unreasonable force" and no justification existed to use force in the situation.

The case also claims that Epperly and McCullough failed to properly train, discipline and supervise employees regarding the use of force.

"I think the training of our law enforcement officers is lacking," Lewright added. "Their job isn't just to arrest people. It is also to help and protect people, and I think they've lost their sensitivity."

When asked to comment on the case, City Administrator Mike Hayslip stated that the city "had already acted on this issue where our staff is concerned, and as previously stated, we will continue to cooperate as prudent with appropriate external requests we may receive.

"We look forward to a positive and expedient resolution to this issue," Hayslip added.?

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