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$10M Settlement for Man Shoved Into Wall by King Co. Deputy; Jurors React to Video

By Sara Jean Green, The Seattle Times

Despite reaching a $10 million settlement Tuesday, attorneys representing King County and the family of Christopher Sean Harris still disagree about what exactly happened the night in May 2009 when a sheriff’s deputy shoved Harris into a concrete wall.

Harris, formerly of Edmonds, suffered a catastrophic brain injury and now requires around-the-clock care. His wife, Sarah, filed a personal-injury lawsuit against the county, accusing Deputy Matthew Paul of acting negligently and using excessive force.

Tuesday’s settlement — the largest individual award ever paid by the county, according to county spokeswoman Christine Lange — came as a civil trial over the lawsuit was under way in Tacoma. Paul, who never has spoken publicly about the incident, was scheduled to testify Tuesday.

“I don’t know how they can pay that amount and say something isn’t wrong,” Sarah Harris said. But she acknowledged there is some comfort knowing “the public knows there were lies told that night and it’s out there now.”

But Senior Deputy Prosecutor John Cobb, who represented the county at trial, said the jury didn’t have an opportunity to hear all the evidence. If the county had presented its defense, he said, that evidence “could’ve swayed the jury.”

The suit was filed in Pierce County to avoid possible conflicts because King County was the defendant.

Sarah Harris said the settlement will allow her to care for her husband and the couple can move out of his father’s Olympia-area house. She also won’t face the potential of years of appeals had the jury ruled in her favor.

“It gives you a little bit of hope into your future, of moving on past this moment,” she said during a news conference at her attorney’s Seattle office. Still, she added, the money “doesn’t fix any of it.”

On May 10, 2009, Harris paid someone $60 to drive him to Seattle after finishing work at an Edmonds restaurant, although it remains unclear why he came into the city. While walking through Belltown, he was wrongly identified by a witness as a suspect in a bloody bar fight that re-erupted inside a nearby convenience store. The witness pointed Harris out to Paul and another deputy, working as King County Metro Transit officers.

Harris led the deputies on a roughly 2 ½-block foot chase as the deputies yelled for him to stop. The two sides disputed exactly when the deputies identified themselves as officers.

According to testimony during the civil trial, Paul and fellow Deputy Joseph Eshom were wearing black tactical uniforms, not traditional deputy uniforms. Attorneys for Sarah Harris argued that Chris Harris likely didn’t realize Paul and Eshom were officers.

As Harris slowed to a stop, Paul delivered a hit to Harris’ chest, slamming him into the concrete wall outside the Cinerama theater at Fourth Avenue and Lenora Street.

A surveillance camera outside the theater captured footage of the incident; Harris is seen raising his hands before he is hit by Paul.

An internal Sheriff’s Office investigation determined that Paul delivered a “hard shove” that fell within legal bounds. The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, calling the confrontation “a very tragic incident,” declined to file criminal charges against the deputy.

But Sarah Harris’ attorneys, Sim Osborn and Ray Dearie, claim there was an attempt to cover up the events of that night, an accusation the Sheriff’s Office vehemently denies.

“This is not a simple, heat-of-the-moment shove,” Dearie said. “This was something where it appeared Paul was angry, and he took his anger out on Chris Harris. … The most egregious thing was that they tried to cover it up.”

Harris, paralyzed and unable to speak, “is going to spend the rest of his life in bed,” Osborn said. While Harris could live another 25 to 30 years, he is not expected to recover, Osborn said.

Osborn said the timing of the settlement — hours after a paramedic testified Monday that Eshom told him Harris had run headfirst into the wall — was no coincidence. But Cobb said mediation talks have been ongoing and the paramedic’s testimony — and Paul’s expected testimony — had no bearing on the settlement.

“Sometimes you have to see how the evidence comes out, and that’s what happened in this case,” Cobb said.

Detective Mike Mellis of the sheriff’s major-crimes unit, who led the criminal investigation and assisted Cobb and Senior Deputy Prosecutor Kristofer Bundy in the civil case, said the paramedic’s testimony was wrong. Mellis and Cobb said Paul and Eshom had been moved across the street by the time Harris was loaded into a medic unit. As a result, paramedic Ryan White couldn’t have heard any statements Eshom might have made, they said.

Had the trial continued, Mellis said he believes White’s testimony would have been seen as a case of mistaken identity.

Juror Bailey Puryear, 22, of Gig Harbor, said she, too, wishes she could have heard all the evidence. She said watching surveillance footage of the incident was “traumatizing.”

“It was very emotional. I cried a lot through it. I’m just really happy they got what they deserved,” she said of the Harris couple.

Another juror, retired truck driver Carl Fredback, said he was pretty much decided in Sarah Harris’ favor.

“It was excessive force. I don’t care what [Christopher Harris] did, he didn’t deserve to be creamed into the wall like that,” said Fredback, 63, of Gig Harbor.

Juror Paul Murphy, 55, of Gig Harbor, said he is convinced Harris didn’t realize the deputies were officers. “It was obvious to me after about a day of testimony that the officers weren’t recognized as policemen. They were wearing dark uniforms, and it was not well lit.”

Juror George Collett, a Tacoma electrician, said if he was in downtown Seattle at night and people started yelling at him, “I’d be scared and I might run, too.”

“If it had not been for that video, they were going to cover it up,” said Collett, 47. “I don’t think the officer intentionally tried to hurt the guy. I think his adrenaline was going, and he used too much force.”

In a statement, King County Sheriff Sue Rahr expressed her “sincerest condolences and apologies” to Harris and his family.

“We hope the settlement will at least bring financial peace, while understanding nothing we can do or say can make that night ‘go away,’ ” Rahr said.

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.

Published in The Seattle Times, January 25, 2011

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