January 23, 2014 6:49pm PT by Alex Ben Block
Ex-Universal Exec's Excessive Force Case Headed to the Jury
Former Universal co-chairman Brian Mulligan’s federal civil case against two Los Angeles police officers and the city of Los Angeles will go to the jury first thing on Friday. Both sides rested their cases on Thursday, and the lawyers gave final summaries to the eight-person jury at the end of the four-day trial.
Judge Gary Klausner said he will give final instructions to the jury of five women and three men early on Friday at the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, after which they will begin deliberations in the case. A verdict is expected as early as the end of the day Friday.
Mulligan filed the action in February 2013, charging that police used excessive force during a bizarre incident in May 2012.
Mulligan has admitted that four days before the incident, in which he had his nose broken in 15 places and his shoulder broken, he had used a dangerous drug called "White Lightning," also known as bath salts, which is similar to meth or cocaine. The drug has since been made illegal.
Mulligan was found wandering in northeast Los Angeles on May 15 leading up to the incident early on May 16, in which he was subdued by police. His case is not based on whether he used drugs or if he was stopped by police, but whether the officers beat him in a way that is illegal under police department procedures and the law.
“This is an unusual case,” said Mulligan’s lead attorney, Skip Miller, in his 45-minute closing address to the jury. “You’re going to have to be a bit of a Sherlock Holmes as you work through this.”
“Our side says excessive force was used,” he added. “The other side says all of his injuries were self-inflicted or happened in a very different way.”
“The facts are very much in dispute,” said Denise Zimmerman, the assistant city attorney representing the city of Los Angeles and police officer John Miller. “The burden of proof is on Brian Mulligan. If you [the jury] say, ‘I don’t know who to believe,’ then the defense wins.”
Officer James Nichols is represented by attorney Peter Ferguson.
The jury must vote a unanimous eight to zero for Mulligan to prevail. If that happens there will be a second phase to the trial to determine the police and city’s degree of responsibility, and damages, which Mulligan’s side, at one point, said should be as much as $20 million.
The first half of Thursday was taken up with testimony from a series of witnesses, most of whom were paid experts representing Mulligan and the defendants.
Dr. Ryan Abbott was hired by Mulligan’s team to discuss the effects of bath salts on the central nervous system and whether Mulligan was under the effect of the drug when he was subdued by police. He said there is no such thing as a delayed reaction to bath salts, which he said would have entered and left Mulligan’s system days before the incident.
The defense attacked Abbott’s credentials because he has only been practicing medicine for a couple of years and is not board-certified, or a known expert on drug intoxication. They also pointed out he had been hired in part because he is a friend of Caleb Mason, one of Mulligan’s lawyers who is being paid more than $75,000 for his work as an expert witness.
The defense then brought to the stand Josh Drew and Catalina Rodriguez, both of whom live on a street in Eagle Rock where Mulligan was seen wandering, talking to himself and knocking on strangers' doors. Both called in their concerns about Mulligan to the emergency police line.
After Mulligan’s side rested its case, the defense called Edwin Mourthi, a security officer at Occidental College where the police first encountered Mulligan that night. He described Mulligan’s clothes as tattered and said he was jittery, babbling, agitated and disoriented -- but not violent. Mourthi said he felt Mulligan was intoxicated and added that he observed the two policemen acting in a professional manner during the few minutes he was on the scene.
The L.A. Fire Department paramedic who transported Mulligan to the hospital after the beating incident early the next morning said he classified him as having an altered consciousness apparently due to the trauma to his face and back. He said Mulligan told him he had not been hit by a pipe or baton by police.
L.A. Police Sergeant Jerry Santos, who responded to a call from Nichols and Officer Miller for backup -- primarily to count thousands in cash Mulligan had crumpled up in his pockets -- at first said the police suggested, when the incident began at Occidental College, that the banker be taken to a nearby motel. After a break, he changed his testimony to say that it was Mulligan who asked to be taken to the motel (Mulligan has said he was forced to go to a seedy motel by police after they determined he had not broken any laws.)
The clerk at the Highland Park Motel, where Mulligan was taken, said he thought Mulligan was drunk. He said he was with police when Mulligan said there was a man in his motel room, but when they looked there wasn’t anyone. The clerk also said only about 15 minutes after police left, Mulligan departed the motel. Mulligan’s lawyers said that was proof he never wanted to go there in the first place.
Dr. Richard Clark testified for the defense that the use of bath salts over a six-month period -- which Mulligan admitted he had done -- could have created an ongoing psychotic state, which would explain his strange behavior and insomnia.
Another defense witness, Dr. Bashal Bansal, who said he was being paid $750 an hour, testified that Mulligan’s broken nasal bone injury was not life threatening.
The defense also brought to the stand a Glendale policeman who said Mulligan came to his station a few days before the incident with the LAPD to talk about his use of bath salts. A portion of that discussion was then played for the jury.
After the lunch break, Skip Miller was first to sum up the case on behalf of Mulligan for the jury. Miller also was allowed later to return briefly with final words after the defense’s summation.
In his summation, Miller told the jury that when his client was seen wandering the streets of northeast Los Angeles, he was really crying out for help. Instead, added Miller, he ran into Nichols, whom he described as a “rogue (police officer), a sadistic person. He did this [injured Mulligan] as punishment for not doing what he told him [to stay at the motel and sleep off whatever was causing him to act disoriented].”
Miller put up pictures of Mulligan’s face, showing he had suffered serious injuries. “I think these speak for themselves,” said Miller, adding: “Was this reasonable force?”
Miller said the police claim they have no idea how Mulligan was injured, which he said “was just not credible.”
“He was fleeing from them,” added Miller, who questioned why the officers did not use the Taser and pepper spray they had on their belts that night along with a loaded gun. He said that officer Miller, who is 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, could also have just tackled Mulligan.
Miller said the police story that Mulligan attacked Nichols is not credible. He says it was the policeman who was violent, hostile and abusive. Miller charged the police with acting like “judge, jury and executioner,” and said they decided to give his client “a good whooping.”
The attorney said Mulligan has no history of violence, has never been arrested or convicted of any crime and was really just someone who needed help.
“It’s an unfortunate circumstance,” said Miller, adding that now, “He and his family want his life back.”
Zimmerman began her summation by telling the jury that the case isn’t “about force. This is about credibility … The facts are very much in dispute.”
Zimmerman made an analogy to Disneyland attraction Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride to describe Mulligan’s actions on the night and early morning of the incident, and the days before. She described a series of actions and incidents that showed Mulligan’s behavior growing increasingly more bizarre.
She said the police, in reality, acted professionally and were trying to help Mulligan. She said they did not force him to stay at the motel, but responded to his need for a place to rest as he turned down offers to call his wife to pick him up or to get him a taxi home.
She said it was not credible to say that Nichols attacked Mulligan with his baton, hitting him in the face, as the officer knew that would be considered lethal force and was against department regulations. Zimmerman added that it was impossible for Nichols to hit Mulligan with his baton, because he had left it in the car when he began his pursuit on foot.
She said Mulligan sustained his injuries when he was pushed to the ground as he tried to attack Nichols, and then when he rolled around on the grass and pavement as he struggled to get away.
Zimmerman said Nichols had no motivation to hurt Mulligan “unless you have the impression Nichols is pure evil. I hope not. He was just trying to help him solve his problems. It is part of Mr. Mulligan’s wild ride. It is not part of reality.”
“I represent Officer Miller, who has to go back to work tomorrow,” said Zimmerman. “All the defense asks is that you take your common sense with you into the [jury] room.”
Ferguson went next, on behalf of Nichols. He said this case was about the three D’s -- “drugs, delusion and denials” by Mulligan.
He said the real cause of Mulligan’s problems began six months before the incident, when he began buying and “snorting” the bath salts.
Pointing to Mulligan, who sat in the front row of the courtroom with his wife, daughter and several friends, Ferguson said “He’s got a BA, an MBA, a CPA. This guy's got a load of money. He has spent a whole lot of [it on this case].”
Ferguson noted how much Mulligan had spent on experts to bolster his case and said that, in the end, “He had to concoct a lie to support this story …That’s not right.”
He said it was wrong to call Nichols “a rogue cop” without any evidence being presented to prove the allegation: “That’s wrong. We don’t do that in this country.”
Ferguson said Mulligan had a duty to follow the orders he was given by the officers who wanted to assist him. “Instead, he resisted,” Ferguson said, “and now he is trying to blame others and hide for his drugs, his delusions.”
He pointed to his client, who was a military medic before becoming a policeman, and then pointed to Miller, who was a Marine before joining the LAPD. He said, “At 3 a.m., when you call them, they are the kind of people you hope show up at your house.”
In his final summary, Skip Miller responded, “I don’t think James Nichols is the kind of officer anybody wants at his house at 3 a.m. I think he’s evil.”
Miller said he supports and admires most police, but “every organization has a rotten apple.”
Miller took offense at Zimmerman’s comparison to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride: “We’re not here because of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. We’re here because a guy got hurt really badly by virtue of excessive force.”