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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

$200K award in Albany brutality case

The Albany Times Union by BRENDAN J. LYONS Senior writer - March 6, 2008

A federal jury in Utica today awarded $200,000 in punitive damages to a black man who was brutalized by an Albany police officer during an arrest in Arbor Hill six years ago. The money, pending any appeals, would be be paid by the city of Albany because Officer William Bonanni is indemnified from paying punitive damages under the police department's collective bargaining agreement with the city, according to attorneys and court records in the case.

The $200,000 is in addition to $65,000 in compensatory damages awarded by the federal jury last week when they found Bonanni responsible for grinding the victim's face into the asphalt in front of numerous police officers. Bonanni, a 17-year veteran of the force, has been the target of numerous civilian complaints for using excessive force against minorities, but there is no indication he was ever disciplined as a result of those cases, according to departmental records filed in the lawsuit.

The jury was not instructed that Bonanni would be indemnified from paying the punitive damages in the case, attorneys said.

The civil verdict handed up by the federal jury last week, at the end of a three-day trial, concluded that race was a factor when Bonanni stood on the handcuffed man's head and ground the victim's face into the asphalt in front of numerous police officers. The victim, Phillip Lewis, 43, also claimed that Bonanni pulled down Lewis' pants on Livingston Avenue and separated his buttocks to look for contraband as onlookers screamed for the police to stop, but the jury found that Bonanni was not liable for that allegation.

The jury deliberated just two hours following a two-day trial last week before finding both Bonanni and the city of Albany equally liable for the compensatory damages. The city is responsible for what happened to Lewis because the police department has a history of not properly training, supervising or disciplining Bonanni, according to the verdict. ``My client and I are very pleased with both the jury's verdict (last week) and with the verdict today,'' said Patrick Radel, Lewis's attorney. "We felt like this was a fair trial and just verdict.''

John Liguori, the city's attorney in the case, said the city will appeal the verdicts because he believes U.S. District Court Judge David N. Hurd made several errors on evidentiary rulings that may be ``reversible on appeal.'' Lewis was convicted of weapons charges and served a four-year prison sentence in connection with his arrest on Nov. 23, 2002.

Still, the jury looked past Lewis' criminal conduct -- he was accused of beating another man with a loaded handgun -- in determining that Bonanni had used excessive force and violated Lewis' constitutional rights on the basis of his race, according to Radel.

Bonanni has spent much of his time on the force on administrative leave, suspension or restricted duty for misconduct allegations. The department also has received at least eight formal complaints against him for excessive force. All of the complaints were filed by black people, and nearly all of them included allegations that Bonanni kicked or punched someone in the head while he was handcuffed, according to internal affairs records filed as part of the case.

Radel said there was no explanation given by the city during the trial for why Bonanni has remained a police officer despite a slew of disciplinary problems, including his indictment on felony assault and perjury charges in 1997 in connection with the beating of a black, handcuffed college student in a police garage. Bonanni, 40, was later acquitted of those charges after the alleged victim, Jermaine Henderson, refused to testify against them at trial. Bonanni remains on active duty.

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