Man beaten by PG police gets $1.9 million award Jury says officers used excessive force MARYLAND/REGIONAL NEWS

March 18, 1993|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Staff Writer

A federal jury awarded $1.9 million yesterday to a black Rockville man and the estate of his brother after finding that four white Prince George's County police officers used excessive force against them in 1989.

The jury of eight whites and one black deliberated over two days before reaching its verdict in U.S. District Court in Baltimore before Chief Magistrate Judge Clarence E. Goetz. The panel ruled that the officers violated the brothers' civil rights.

Jurors awarded $1.7 million in compensatory and punitive damages to Martin Akin Habib, a Ghanaian national who is now 34. Of that award, $1.6 million was for pain and suffering.

Jurors awarded $192,328 to the estate of Gregory Kafi Habib, who was 37 when he died after being beaten and stomped by police officers during a traffic stop.

"I don't have any comment, but I think it is good," Martin Habib said after the verdict.

Michael W. Kirk, the lawyer for Martin Habib, said his client suffered a broken jaw and bruises in addition to post-traumatic stress disorder from watching his brother die on the street beside him.

"Obviously, we're pleased," Mr. Kirk said of the verdict.

Asked why the jury awarded more money to his client than to Gregory Habib's estate, he said, "We have no way of knowing what they were thinking. But it generally is well-known that a plaintiff who survives will have greater damages."

Lawyers for Prince George's County who defended the officers said they would appeal the verdict. They also could ask Magistrate Judge Goetz to set aside the award or reduce it.

Crystal R. Dixon, an attorney for Prince George's County, would not comment on the verdict.

The incident began when police Cpl. Steven Kerpelman stopped the Habib brothers while they were riding through Langley Park in their red Toyota just after 3 p.m. on May 20, 1989.

Lawyers for the brothers said Corporal Kerpelman ordered the men out of the car. They said the officer started beating them with his nightstick when Gregory Habib reached into his pocket for his identification. The brothers were not armed.

Alan G. Fishel, who represented Gregory Habib's estate, said his client had been beaten by three officers and was on the ground when Sgt. Ben Gilbreath ran from a distance and leaped onto his back with both knees.

"There has to be a time when you just can't come up from 40 or 50 feet, flying into a guy's back like that," he said in his closing argument last week. "That was the final nail in the coffin."

Mr. Gilbreath retired from the police about a year ago. Corporal Kerpelman and the other officers, Cpl. Robert Edwards and Cpl. Richard Hart, remain on the force.

A Prince George's grand jury heard evidence in the case in 1989 but did not bring criminal charges against the officers. in the incident. Assault charges against Martin Habib were dismissed.

The incident sparked controversy between the police department and Prince George's County blacks, who said the case showed that county police were brutal toward blacks.

The jury yesterday found that all four officers violated civil rights by using excessive force against Gregory Habib. It found that Corporal Hart and Corporal Kerpelman used excessive force against Martin Habib.

The panel cleared the officers of assault charges.

Mr. Gilbreath was not in court yesterday. The other defendants left the courtroom immediately after the verdict and would not comment.

Michael O. Connaughton, of the Prince George's law department, defended the officers' actions in closing arguments. said the brothers approached Corporal Kerpelman "in a menacing way" after being stopped.

Mr. Connaughton said they did not want the officer to learn that they were in the country illegally.

"This is a rather simple case," Mr. Connaughton told the jury. "The case is about two illegal aliens who did not want to be arrested by police officers." He said the men, who wore their hair in dreadlocks, were driving through an area known for drug trafficking with the intent to buy illegal narcotics. He noted that an autopsy showed that Gregory Habib had a trace of marijuana in his system.

"Take yourself out of this courtroom and put yourself in the body of Steve Kerpelman, who's standing in the middle of an open drug market," he said. "While he's in the street, he sees these two men coming at him. He wants to go home. He doesn't want to get hurt."

Mr. Gilbreath's lawyer said his client leaped onto Gregory Habib because he thought the man had a weapon and that a colleague had been stabbed or shot.

"Benny Gilbreath didn't know that Gregory Habib didn't have a weapon under him," said the lawyer, Alan E. D'Appolito.

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