A federal jury awarded $1.75 million in damages Tuesday to an Arleta man who was left comatose and brain dead allegedly as a result of a neck hold used during his arrest by a Los Angeles police officer.
Peter Mares, 31, has remained in a "persistent vegetative state" since the Sept. 1, 2000, incident, according to medical experts who testified at the three-week civil trial.
The jury concluded that Foothill Division Officer Anthony Daniel committed battery on Mares, who had run from police after being stopped for violating a curfew in Pacoima's David Gonzales Park.
Two residents from the nearby San Fernando Gardens public housing project testified that they saw Mares lying facedown on the ground while Daniel yanked his neck backward "like a horse in a bridle."
Daniel, assigned to an anti-gang squad, denied using a neck hold on Mares. He was supported by other police witnesses.
"The jury decided something must have happened," Assistant City Atty. Richard L. James said after the verdict. The city's lawyer took consolation in the fact that the six-member jury cleared three other officers of any wrongdoing and found that Mares' constitutional rights were not violated.
Mares' mother, Aurora Castillo, said she was gratified by the verdict even though the jury's award was millions less than the amount sought by the plaintiff's attorneys, David A. Katz and Gary Casselman.
The jury also denied Castillo compensation for her own pain and suffering.
"We weren't in this for the money, like the city attorney kept saying during the trial," said Castillo. "We were in it because we wanted justice."
Much of the trial testimony revolved around Daniel's alleged use of a neck hold to subdue Mares and place him in handcuffs.
Under Los Angeles Police Department policy, officers are allowed to use the hold only under life-threatening circumstances. There are two versions of the hold. In the approved method, arm pressure is applied to the carotid artery, interrupting blood flow to the brain and causing the subject to pass out. In the other method, which is no longer authorized, a person's air flow is cut off. It can sometimes cause unintended injuries to the victim.
Department regulations require that anyone subjected to a neck hold must be given immediate medical attention and observed for several hours afterward.
At trial, Mares' lawyers contended that the officers involved in his arrest covered up the fact that the hold had been used, telling paramedics and emergency-room personnel at Pacifica Hospital of the Valley that he was suffering from an apparent cocaine overdose.
Medical experts called by Mares' lawyers testified that a neck hold of some kind caused Mares' throat to swell. They said the swelling became so severe that while awaiting treatment at the hospital, he stopped breathing and suffered cardiac arrest. By the time emergency-room personnel were able to restart his heart, he was comatose and had suffered permanent brain damage.
The city's doctors said that Mares' injuries may have been caused by impurities in cocaine he was suspected of using. At the time of the incident, Mares had just been released from prison after serving time for a drug-related crime.
Mares' lawyers countered that hospital doctors had found no evidence of recent cocaine use when they admitted him.
Testimony showed that the LAPD had inadvertently swapped Mares' urine sample with that of another defendant who was found to be high on drugs.