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2 Ohio cops sued, sue back, win

By Sharon Coolidge
The Cincinnati Enquirer

CINCINNATI — Two Cincinnati police officers took a different approach to clearing their names.

The pair, who are being sued in federal court for their role in the 2003 case of a man who died while in police custody, went to court themselves, filing their own lawsuit and arguing the man who died, Nathaniel Jones, assaulted them.

Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Ralph “Ted” Winkler sided with Officers James Pike and Baron Osterman, awarding them $13,000 each for injuries they suffered while arresting Jones, $5,000 in compensatory damages and $8,000 in punitive damages.

The estate must also pay the officers’ attorney fees of $15,625, Winkler ruled.

The 1st District Court of Appeals upheld that decision this week.

The officers might fight it hard to collect.

Jones’ estate has no assets, according to Eric Deters, the estate’s attorney.

In a bizarre twist, the only way the officers would see any money is if the estate prevails against them in federal court.

Gary Lewis, the officers’ attorney, said the suit wasn’t about money.

“It was an outrageous situation,” Lewis said. “A lot of statements were made by (the estate) that the officers were acting outside bounds of authority. “This was one way to refute that. It certainly wasn’t filed because they were looking for tens of thousands of dollars. It was to get the record straight.”

While it’s common to see the estates of people who died in police custody sue cities, police departments and the officers involved, reverse lawsuits are rare.

Lewis can remember only one other instance where an officer went on the offensive.

Cincinnati police Officer Eric Hall suffered an injured shoulder in 1995 while on duty when he wrestled with Aiken High School student Pharon Crosby.

After the arrest, Crosby, who is black, sued the city and police, claiming racism and brutality. He eventually settled for about $30,000.

Hall sued Crosby the following year for his injuries and settled that case out of court.

“Police officers are almost always on the defensive and this was a situation where they shouldn’t have been on the defensive because they were right,” Lewis said of Pike and Osterman.

The officers declined to comment, citing the pending case in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati.

The department, which was not involved in the suit, also declined to comment.

Jones, 41, died early the morning of Nov. 30, 2003, when his heart failed while he struggled with six Cincinnati police officers in the parking lot of a North Avondale White Castle.

The arrest – including Jones lunging at the officers — was caught on videotape, which brought national attention to Jones’ death.

The Hamilton County Coroner’s Office determined Jones, who weighed 348 pounds, asphyxiated after being left face down. An autopsy showed he had a history of high blood pressure, had recently used of cocaine and the drug PCP and was morbidly obese, all things that contributed to his death.

Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen cleared all police officers — including Pike and Osterman — of criminal wrongdoing.

But in the fall of 2004 Jones’ family filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, blaming police, firefighters and city officials for his death.

A judge denied the city’s request last spring to dismiss the family’s suit. That decision has been appealed to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals and will be argued next month.

As that case slowly proceeded, Pike and Osterman took their claims of battery and assault against Jones to state court.

Pike said he suffered injuries to his lower back, face and hands, among other injuries. Osterman said he suffered injuries to his head.

After the judgment in the officers’ favor, Deters appealed the ruling to the 1st District Court of Appeals. He claimed Ken Lawson, the estate’s original attorney, improperly handled the suit.

Lawson has since had his law license suspended due to prescription drug abuse.

The appellate court disagreed with the estate’s argument, saying the record did not reflect Lawson’s neglect.
Deters said he is likely to appeal the appellate court decision to the Ohio Supreme Court.

“The decision was disappointing,” Deters said. “But it is not the end of the world.

“We still have the federal case in which we defeated the motion to dismiss, we can still appeal the ruling to the Ohio Supreme Court,” Deters said.

“I did the best I could, based on the state of the file, to salvage the case, but I was unable to.”

Coopyright 2008 The Cincinnati Enquirer

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