LAS CRUCES – Four years ago, a dispute between neighbors turned violent when a Las Cruces police officer threw a stay-at-home mother onto gravel and intentionally slammed her face into the rocks, causing profuse bleeding, a broken nose and a fractured wrist.
On Friday, after more than three years of legal wrangling, an eight-member federal jury awarded the woman and her husband, Jillian and Andrew Beck, both formerly of Las Cruces, $1.6 million in damages.
The verdict was reached at the end of a five-day trial in U.S. District Court in Las Cruces. The trial centered on allegations in the couple’s civil-rights lawsuit against Officer Isaiah Baker and Officer Joseph Campa, both of the Las Cruces Police Department.
After about three hours of deliberations, the jury determined Baker had used unreasonably excessive force on Jillian Beck in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. He also committed a battery in violation of New Mexico law, the jury ruled. Because the latter was not a criminal charge, Baker is not facing any time behind bars.
The jury further concluded that Campa had unlawfully seized and arrested Andrew Beck, also in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
The couple was awarded $1 million in punitive damages as a result of Baker’s “willful, malicious, wanton and reckless conduct,” according to their attorneys, Margaret Strickland and Mollie McGraw of Las Cruces. The couple received an additional $600,000 in compensatory damages.
In a brief statement released Friday, the city of Las Cruces said it was planning to “review the jury’s decision” for a possible appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver. The city was not named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
A city spokesman did not respond Monday to questions from the Sun-News. A spokesman for LCPD also declined to comment on the case on Monday.
In an interview, Strickland said Jillian Beck was “relieved that the officers were going to be held accountable.”
Strickland, in a statement, added: “The jury sent a clear message that this type of behavior towards civilians will not be tolerated in our community.”
In arguments made before the jury, Strickland and McGraw said a “blue wall of silence” at LCPD had shielded the officers’ misconduct and subsequent cover-up for four years.
The incident occurred on the evening of Jan. 5, 2013, according to the lawsuit. Police had been dispatched to the 7500 block of Vista de Oeste Place, where the couple lived with their 4-year-old son, in response to a neighbor dispute. Baker and Campa were among the officers who responded to the call.
Jillian Beck, then 26, had been “upset with a neighbor who was throwing rocks and blowing an air horn in the middle of the night at another neighbor’s dog,” the lawsuit stated.
She explained her complaint to Baker, according to the lawsuit. But as she turned to walk away from the officer, he “unexpectedly grabbed her arm, twisted it behind her back, and slammed her to the ground.”
At trial, it was revealed that Beck had tried to lift her head off the ground in an effort to call out to a neighbor to remove her son from the scene. But as she lifted her head, Baker slammed her face onto rocks, her attorneys said.
When she was lifted off the ground by Baker, her face was covered in blood, the lawsuit stated. Her husband then attempted to help her, but when he stepped forward, he was detained by Campa.
Andrew Beck, who testified on Feb. 7 via live video from an Air Force base in Qatar, said he thought his wife was “choking on her own blood,” according to his attorneys. The active-duty airman had been based at White Sands Missile Range when the incident occurred.
During the trial, a police audio recording of the incident was played for the jury. In the recording, Baker can be heard saying “she got thrown” and she got a “face full of rocks,” Strickland said. A female officer then said “cool” in response.
Jillian Beck was then placed under arrest and charged with battery on a peace officer, resisting an officer and disorderly conduct. The battery and resisting charges were dismissed, court records show, and she pleaded no contest to disorderly conduct.
Her husband also was arrested and charged with resisting an officer. But the charge was later dismissed, Strickland said.
According to the city’s Human Resources Department, both Baker and Campa are still employed with LCPD as officers. Human resources would not say if the officers were ever disciplined over the incident.