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Federal Jury Clears Police in Suspect’s 1996 Death

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A federal jury has rejected claims that five police officers from Port Hueneme and Oxnard caused the death of a 42-year-old south Oxnard man allegedly high on cocaine by using pepper spray to subdue him.

The seven-person jury reached the unanimous verdict Tuesday after a weeklong trial in a Los Angeles courtroom.

The family of Ray Lee Carter had sought $10 million in damages in the May 1996 death of the self-employed handyman.

Oxnard attorney Alan E. Wisotsky, who represented the officers, said Carter was under the influence of cocaine and was muttering incoherently and acting bizarrely when he was confronted by police as he staggered down the sidewalk of Elsinore Avenue.

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“Roy Carter brought this on himself,” Wisotsky said. “It’s unfortunate, but it’s not a responsibility police have to bear. . . . It’s the fashionable thing to do--to go after police these days.”

Lawyers for Carter’s estate, suing on behalf of his 11-year-old daughter, had alleged the officers used excessive force in apprehending Carter, who weighed more than 300 pounds.

His family members had described Carter as a “law-abiding citizen” who may have been “hard to handle,” but who did not use drugs.

“The jury has made its decision and apparently these officers used no excessive force,” said the Carter family’s attorney, Earnest Bell of Ventura, who declined further comment. Carter’s family could not be reached for comment.

The jury took about 2 1/2 hours to decide that police neither violated Carter’s civil rights nor were negligent in how they handled the situation.

“They did not believe what the plaintiffs suggested, and that was that the officers were liars,” Wisotsky said. “They concluded the force that was used was reasonable.”

It took a police officer on each limb, three sets of handcuffs as well as the pepper spray to control Carter, Wisotsky said. After handcuffing Carter in a prone position, the officers realized he was not breathing. Paramedics on the scene performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation on Carter, but were unable to revive him.

Ventura County Coroner Ronald O’Halloran had ruled that Carter suffocated after being restrained by police, but testified during the trial that pepper spray may have played a role in his death, Wisotsky said.

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“The cocaine level coupled with his excitability--the energy he had expended previously during the struggle--you put it all together and that’s a fatal combination,” Wisotsky said.

The lawsuit by Carter’s family was one of at least two in Ventura County that involve police restraint, alleged illegal-drug use, the victim’s excessive weight and pepper spray.

The parents and daughter of a Thousand Oaks man who died in police custody on New Year’s Eve 1996 have sued Ventura County in federal court alleging that his civil rights were violated.

The family alleges deputies used unnecessary force to subdue Marco Marangoni. Responding to neighbors’ complaints of a man “acting bizarre and speaking incoherently” in the 1000 block of Calle Pensamiento in Thousand Oaks, sheriff’s deputies said they used pepper spray in an effort to restrain the 29-year-old, who weighed more than 300 pounds and was high on marijuana.

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As in Carter’s case, the coroner ruled Marangoni had died of suffocation after being restrained in a prone position.


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