(John Disney/Daily Report)
Marion County Sheriff Chris Blair and two deputies were found liable for using excessive force in the wrongful death of an unarmed 21-year-old man, a federal jury concluded in a civil trial.
The jury awarded $2.3 million in the death of Joshua Salvato.
On the night of July 6, 2012, the Ocala man was walking beside a highway when Deputy Lauren Miley pulled up. He was responding to a 911 call about a disturbance in the area, saw Salvato and began questioning him.
After a search for a weapon, Miley found that all Salvato had in his pockets was a piece of bread but called for backup.
When Deputy Norman Brown arrived, he pushed Salvato face-down into the grass and the two deputies tried to handcuff him.
Salvato wrestled his way free and threw punches to put distance between himself and the officers, said plaintiffs attorney Theodore Leopold of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll in Palm Beach Gardens. Deputy Miley shot Salvato in the abdomen as he back-pedaled into the road.
Salvato was handcuffed while bleeding and lying face down on the pavement. Brown shot Salvato 12 times in six minutes with a Taser gun before he died.
In November 2012, a grand jury found no wrongdoing by the deputies.
“The defendants were not truthful during the grand jury investigation. If not for the civil justice system, the full scope of the evidence would never have been heard and justice would not have been served,” said plaintiffs attorney Theodore Leopold of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll in Palm Beach Gardens.
Vincent Salvato’s father Vincent sued the sheriff as the representative of his son’s estate. He also was represented by Antonio M. Romanucci of Romanucci & Blandin in Chicago and Janet Varnell of Varnell & Warwick in Lady Lake.
A jury of three men and five women found Miley used excessive and unreasonable deadly force, and the sheriff ratified the force used “by a failure to investigate the circumstances causing the death … and to take that corrective action, if any, as such investigation would have revealed to be necessary,” according to the verdict.
The jury found Brown used excessive force against Salvato.
The verdict award was mostly comprised of pain and suffering damages for Salvato’s parents, funeral costs and $18,250 for the victim’s pain and suffering.
The jury also found Brown acted “with malicious purpose or in a manner exhibiting reckless indifference or wanton and willful disregard of human rights.” However, it did not assess punitive damages against him.
Salvato’s death was captured by a patrol car dashboard camera, a key piece of evidence that recorded the handcuffing attempt, struggle and shooting.
After the verdict was announced Friday, Salvato’s father said: “Through this verdict, our community stood up and spoke on behalf of my son Josh. They sent a message that the sheriff is not above the law and his position does not grant him immunity from wrongdoing nor does it protect him from being held accountable.”
Miley was represented at trial by Walter Ketcham Jr. and Ramon Vazquez of Grower, Ketcham, Rutherford, Bronson, Eide & Telan in Orlando.
Brown was represented by Bruce Bogan of Hilyard, Bogan & Palmer in Orlando. The sheriff was represented by John M. Green Jr. of Ocala.
U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges presided.