A U.S. District Court jury recently cleared two state troopers and a former Lawrence police officer who were accused in a civil lawsuit of causing the death of a Lawrence man during a confrontation in 2005.
The jury heard six days of testimony and deliberated for three hours before clearing the police. Troopers Mark F. Blanchard and Stephen R. Gondella and former Lawrence Officer Mark Rivet were sued by the estate of Alfonso Santana, a Lawrence man who died after struggling with police during a drug arrest.
The family had sought an unspecified amount in damages, alleging that he died because the officers held him around his neck during a sidewalk confrontation that began with police ordering Santana to spit out an object they saw him put in his mouth. A small amount of cocaine was found wrapped in a paper towel in Santana’s mouth.
Background of the case taken from the Defendant’s Motions for Partial Summary Judgement (July 22, 2010):
“On October 19, 2005, defendants were working as part of the Essex County Drug Task Force. The Task Force consisted of members of the Massachusetts State Police and the Lawrence Police Department. After executing a search warrant on Water Street in Lawrence, Task Force members were instructed to proceed to Forest Street, approximately one mile away, and wait there for further orders. Blanchard, Gondella, and Rivet traveled together to Forest Street. Rivet then left to fetch lunch for the group.
“While stationed at Forest Street, Blanchard observed a red sport utility vehicle (SUV) driving slowly towards the officers’ location. According to Blanchard, Gondella recognized the SUV from earlier surveillance on Water Street. Gondella contacted Sergeant William Canty, his supervisor, who told him to stop and identify the driver of the SUV.
“As Blanchard watched, the SUV pulled to the side of the street and the driver (Santana) got out. Blanchard approached him in the vicinity of 49 Forest Street. Blanchard identified himself as a State trooper and asked Santana for his driver’s license and registration. Santana produced a Massachusetts driver’s license in the name of Hernan Rivera. (It was later learned that Hernan Rivera was Santana’s alias). Santana returned to the driver’s side of the SUV. Blanchard stood beside him.
“Blanchard relayed the information on the driver’s license to Sergeant Canty. He also told Canty that Santana appeared nervous and that his heart could be seen beating through his chest. As he ended the conversation with Canty, Blanchard observed Santana place a white object in his mouth. Santana ignored Blanchard’s order to spit it out and turned away. Blanchard called to Gondella for assistance as he attempted to wrest the object from Santana’s mouth.
“Blanchard and Gondella were unable to restrain Santana. Blanchard called on Rivet (who had just returned with the lunches) for reinforcement. Blanchard admits that in the effort to subdue Santana, “[t]wo different law enforcement officers punched Mr. Santana in the face one or two times each.” (Blanchard denies being one of the officers who punched Santana). Rivet admits to punching Santana in the face “one or two times.”
“As they placed Santana in handcuffs, the officers realized that he was no longer breathing. They attempted to resuscitate him and called for an ambulance. The efforts to revive Santana were unsuccessful. An autopsy was later conducted by Dr. William Zane, who determined that Santana had died of acute and chronic cocaine abuse. A second autopsy was performed by plaintiff’s medical expert, Dr. Gerald Feigin. He initially concluded that Santana had died of blunt force trauma to the head. Dr. Feigin later opined that Santana was killed by “the application of a carotid sleeper hold.”