San Joaquin Jury Finds Correctional Officer “Not Guilty”

Posted on Friday, September 01, 2006 at 12:00PM

On July 28, 2006, after a day of deliberation, a San Joaquin County jury acquitted Correctional Officer Greg Fuher of a charge of assault under color of authority on inmate Montez Denmon.

The case began on September 5, 2003, when Denmon was arrested for beating up his girlfriend and dragging her down a Stockton street by the hair. Denmon, who weighed almost 300 lbs., was taken to the main San Joaquin County Jail, where he was classified as a “level 8” inmate because of previous assaults on both jail and prison staffs. Denmon was told he would be (again) housed in the administrative segregation unit. If he resisted, or assaulted staff, he was told he would be placed in a restraint room.

Denmon began yelling and cursing at staff, and told officers to “Bring the boys– there’s going to be a fight–I’m not going back to the hole”. He was ultimately pepper sprayed and a cell extraction was accomplished, but not until Denmon exhibited great strength, bucking off several officers, including one who weighed almost 400 lbs.

Taken to the medical unit restraint room, Denmon was placed on a “five point restraint” bed, with his hands, feet, and body held down by leather straps. Almost immediately, he began breaking the straps, a feat no one had seen before. At least three incidents of strap breaking and re-restraining occurred before Officer Greg Fuher came on duty.

The final call for help came as Denmon had broken one hand free and again snapped the waist strap. Approximately 12 officers and deputies responded, including Fuher. As Denmon bucked violently on the bed trying to break completely free, the officers entered the room. Denmon now exhibited almost superhuman strength, resisting all efforts to re-restrain him, while bucking officers off his body. Fuher and another officer stood on his back and pressed down with their feet when Denmon would rise up. At one point, some officers later testified they heard Fuher say, “I’ll kill you”.

Noticing some blood on the floor (later determined to have come from a cut over Denmon’s eye when a deputy struck him as a distraction), a nurse called for an ambulance. Just as medical personnel arrived, Denmon stopped struggling. They found no pulse, applied CPR and took Denmon to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.

A grand jury indicted Fuher for a violation of Penal Code §149, assault under color of authority. The only other officer indicted was the one who hit Denmon over the eye; he was indicted for misdemeanor battery. The legal Defense Fund provided separate counsel for both officers.

A motion to dismiss the case was filed on the ground that the grand jury did not have probable cause to indict. That motion was granted and the case against both officers was thrown out. However, the district attorney decided to appeal the dismissal against Fuher, while the other officer’s dismissal was final. After sitting on the case for over a year, the District Court of Appeal reinstated the charge against Fuher.

At trial, the prosecution’s theory was Denmon died of “positional or traumatic asphyxia” due to Fuher’s weight on his back. The Legal Defense Fund hired University of California San Diego emergency room physician, Dr. Tom Neuman an expert in these cases. He rebutted the coroner’s opinion on cause of death. Dr. Neuman testified Denmon died of “sudden cardiac death”, caused by being overweight and having an enlarged heart. Two use of force experts (Sgt. Walker of the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office and retired Placer County Sheriff’s Lieutenant David Rose) testified none of the force used by staff on Denmon was unreasonable.

Notwithstanding the fact local officials and the NAACP sided with the family’s position that the death was unwarranted and perhaps racially motivated, the jury found otherwise. Interestingly, there were two African Americans on the jury, as well as a San Joaquin County judge.

Fuher was represented by longtime Legal Defense Fund Panel Attorney Bob Peters of Sacramento.

PORAC Legal Defense Administrator Ed Fishman Testimony: Law Enforcement Use of Body Cameras.