Is Five-Year Sentence for Abusive Deputy Excessive?

I was surprised to read in the October 18 North Jeffco Westsider that an abusive sheriff’s deputy from Adams County—David Morrow—was convicted of assaulting a restrained teen and sentenced to five years in prison.

First I was surprised that any abusive police officer, anywhere, had actually been charged with any crime by any district attorney. Kudos to Dave Young—the district attorney for Colorado’s 17th judicial district (which covers Adams and Broomfield counties)—and to his team for prosecuting the deputy for a crime he obviously committed. I hope the prosecution inspires DAs everywhere to charge police officers within their jurisdictions whenever those officers commit violent crimes. I am damned sick of reading stories about cops who needlessly beat the crap out of people, then not only avoid criminal prosecution but often keep their jobs.

But then I was surprised by the length of the sentence. Five years strikes me as excessive for punching a drunk, belligerent teen in the face. Offhand, I would consider a reasonable sentence to consist of a few months in the county jail followed by a few year’s probation in association with intensive anger-management classes and community service. The courts should have also required Morrow to personally pay for the teen’s medical bills and related expenses.

Let’s look at some of the facts of the case. A good place to start is with a media release from Young’s office:

Morrow . . . was convicted of second-degree assault . . . , third-degree assault . . . and child abuse. . . .

On June 12, 2011 at about 1:10 a.m. Morrow responded to a call about a disturbance at 8790 Welby Road in Adams County. According to court records and evidence presented during the trial, the 15-year-old boy, who appeared highly intoxicated, was taken into custody and transported by ambulance to the hospital because parent contact information could not be obtained from him. The ambulance attendant had restrained the juvenile’s hands and feet because of his verbally combative behavior. Morrow struck the juvenile on the face with a closed fist as he passed by the teen who was restrained on the ambulance gurney.

A Westword story and a 9News video embedded by Westword add a few relevant details. The teen in question was so drunk he couldn’t even identify his parents. Obviously the party to which Morrow was sent was totally out of control and totally deserving of a police response. The teen “mouthed off” and, prior to being restrained, refused to obey lawful police orders (if we interpret the remarks of one of the party’s organizers who was interviewed by 9News). I understand why Morrow was frustrated with this drunk, belligerent, mouthy, law-breaking teen. Obviously that did not give Morrow any justification to punch the teen and break his jaw. Officers of the law have to be better than the lowlifes with whom they come into contact on a daily basis.

Obviously Morrow committed a crime and was justly prosecuted and convicted. I hope DAs go after every city cop and sheriff’s deputy who violates the rights of others.

But what about that five-year sentence? According to the Westsider story, Morrow was convicted “after a six-day jury trial in August.” He faced a maximum of sixteen years in prison.

These facts leave me with a number of questions. What sort of deal did the DA offer to Morrow, and why did he not take the deal? (Westsider reports that Morrow’s attorney claimed his client acted in self-defense, which seems ridiculous.) Who is this attorney who let his client go to prison for five years for punching a belligerent, drunk teen? Why did the judge impose such a harsh sentence?

Another important question: What’s going to happen to Morrow in prison? If I were a sheriff’s deputy, about the last place on earth I’d want to be is in prison. In what prison will Morrow spend time? Is it more of a “country club” sort of prison or more of a “don’t drop the soap” sort of prison? Will Morrow be assaulted, raped, or murdered in prison? Assuming his prison is as bad as I think most prisons are, it seems horribly unjust to sentence a guy guilty of a relatively minor-level assault to the very real risk of getting violently assaulted or worse. Will Morrow be protected from other criminals in prison who I suspect would be more than happy to bust up a cop?

To sum up: I’m glad Morrow was prosecuted and convicted for committing a crime. I’m not at all sure that the resulting prison sentence is just or that Morrow will be adequately protected from other criminals while in prison. I think the surrounding questions deserve deeper consideration.