DALLAS—At the heart of the civil trial concerning Tony Timpa—who died during a mental health crisis after calling 911 in August 2016—was an appeal made to the jury by the lead defense counsel, Senior Assistant City Attorney Lindsay Wilson Gowin. "Justice here is truth," she said. Then, invoking allegations that the Timpa family had not been transparent about various dark corners of Timpa's life, she added: "That's not how you find the truth."
She had a point. But that statement, made during closing arguments Tuesday, was a bit ironic, particularly when considering the lengths the government went to in order to obscure basic transparency and keep the events of that summer night a secret. Indeed, the trial, which almost didn't come to fruition, has come to symbolize how difficult it is for alleged victims of government abuse from stating their case, and the importance of allowing those claims a fair and public hearing, no matter the outcome.
Today, a federal jury rendered their verdict. The panel of eight found that Officer Dustin Dillard, Senior Cpl. Raymond Dominguez, and Officer Danny Vasquez did in fact violate Timpa's constitutional rights during a roughly 15-minute interaction on Dallas' Mockingbird Lane. But they gave Dillard and Vasquez qualified immunity, concluding that, while their actions were unlawful, a reasonable officer couldn't have been expected to know as much. A fourth defendant, Sgt. Kevin Mansell, the highest-ranking officer supervising the scene that evening, was vindicated entirely.
The city will have to pay Timpa's son $1 million in damages.
On August 10, 2016, Timpa dialed 911 and said he suffered from various mental illnesses and was off his medication. The emergency dispatch center received a few other 911 calls reporting that a man—who turned out to be Timpa—was running in traffic. Two security guards handcuffed and detained him while they waited for the police.
What happened next would in some sense come to define the subsequent seven years for both the officers involved and Timpa's family. To subdue Timpa, the officers re-handcuffed him and zip-tied his feet, with Dillard and Vasquez holding him in the prone position facedown. Vasquez stopped applying force about two minutes thereafter, while Dillard pressed his knee, with some additional help from his hands, into Timpa's back for approximately fourteen minutes and seven seconds.
Timpa initially resisted the restraint, yelling for help and thrusting his shoulder upward; his activity gradually peters out over the course of the body camera footage. Toward the latter third of the video, his pushing becomes twitching, his speech slurs, and for the final few minutes, he is limp. Vasquez and Dominguez are heard mocking Timpa nearby, comparing him to a schoolboy who they taunt with "new shoes," "waffles" ("tutti-frutti" flavor), and "scrambled eggs" to excite him out of bed. Both men, along with Mansell, faced bystander liability for declining to intervene; Dominguez outranked Vasquez, which perhaps explains the discrepancy on qualified immunity. Timpa was pronounced dead at 32 years old.
The trial—convened in response to a federal lawsuit filed by several members of the Timpa family against those cops—became a war of words over how exactly Timpa died, which depends on whom you ask. The plaintiffs contend it was positional asphyxia caused by the prone restraint, a theory buttressed primarily by pulmonologist Martin Tobin. The defense countered with the official autopsy report, citing that Timpa passed away after experiencing "sudden cardiac death due to the toxic effects of cocaine and [the] physiologic stress associated with physical restraint," with an emphasis on the cocaine. Jeffrey Barnard, the chief medical examiner of Dallas County, testified that Timpa's substance abuse, high blood pressure, and the stress of struggling against the restraint caused his heart to abruptly stop beating.
Also on trial was the prone restraint itself. Is it a deadly maneuver that has long been cautioned against? Yes, said the plaintiffs, invoking a 1995 report from the Department of Justice on the danger of sudden asphyxiation from the prone. They leaned heavily on Tobin as well as Martin D. Lyman, a researcher and professor emeritus of criminal justice at Columbia College of Missouri, who testified that the force used on Timpa was "improper, unnecessary, and unreasonable."
Or is the prone restraint a tried and true tactic for maintaining order? Yes, said the defense, appealing to Senior Cpl. Jeffery Metzger—a police officer, emergency physician, and professor of medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern—and Senior Cpl. Sam Hanson, who helps lead training at the Dallas Police Department (DPD). "There were no good options," said Hanson. He emphasized Timpa's erratic state and that the risk of suffocation from the prone position is "remote."
Central to the plaintiffs' argument was that DPD general orders and standard operating procedures warn officers to move subjects out of the prone—to sit them up or roll them onto their side—as soon as possible. The defense maintained that those are guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules. And while Timpa was under "a level of control," they said, the officers had not established "full control," and thus the continued use of the restraint was justified.
The Timpas' lead attorney, Geoff Henley—the sort of flamboyant lawyer who appeals to his southern charm—had asked the jury to give compensatory damages amounting to $40,911,911.00 for Tony's mother, Vicki Timpa; $40,911,911.00 for Tony's father, Joe Timpa; $120,911,911.00 for Timpa's son; and $100,911,911.00 for Timpa's estate. The 911 bookends were not coincidental. "They're not picking up the call," Henley told the jury, accusing the DPD of resisting reform. "I certainly hope you will." To calculate additional punitive damages—which are meant not to make a victim whole but to punish—he instructed the jury to use a culpability scale ranging from one to 14. The total damages, combining compensatory and punitive, could have exceeded $1 billion.
On the stand, Dominguez and Vasquez apologized for their crass comments but insisted they were not responsible for Timpa's demise. The comments were "inappropriate," Gowin conceded, but they ultimately showed the officers were unaware of how much the situation had decayed, she told the jury. Dillard choked up as he recounted growing up with his abusive stepfather, who was also a police officer, and who would have his mother arrested when the two had domestic disputes. "I did not kill Mr. Timpa," he said. "I hated that he died."
And what about Timpa's private life? To some degree, the trial became about The Secret Life of Tony Timpa, with the defense excavating details surrounding his long-term substance abuse, his trips to rehabilitation facilities, his pre-existing heart issues, and his alcohol intake. Henley called the tactic a "smear campaign," particularly as it pertained to Timpa's alcohol consumption, since the toxicology report did not show alcohol in his bloodstream the night he died.
But whether or not those parts of his life were really a secret is disputed. Following Timpa's death, his father told medical examiners that he did not know of any struggles Timpa had with illicit drugs. On the stand, his ex-wife, Cheryll Timpa, also insisted she was oblivious to such problems. That belied reality, the defense said, noting Timpa's multiple trips to rehab. "The only people who Timpa's life wasn't a secret to," said Gowin, were "the Timpas."
They weren't the only ones allegedly keeping secrets. For three years, the DPD refused to release the bodycam footage, relinquishing it only after a court ordered them to do so in August 2019. Detectives with the department reportedly lied to Tony's mother on multiple occasions, telling her conflicting stories about what happened to her son, including that he'd had a heart attack at a bar. The department's deceit played a minor role in the trial; the detectives who relayed those tales to Vicki were not named in the suit.
Following the release of the video, the city spent the next several years attempting to stop a trial from happening. To do so, its attorneys invoked qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that prevents civil suits against state and local government employees from proceeding if the misconduct alleged was not "clearly established" with near-exactitude in a prior court precedent. In the summer of 2020, the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Texas awarded all the officers qualified immunity; that ruling was ultimately overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in December 2021. In May 2022, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
"A jury could find that Timpa was subdued by nine minutes into the restraint and that the continued use of force was objectively unreasonable in violation of Timpa's Fourth Amendment rights," wrote Judge Edith Brown Clement in her opinion for the 5th Circuit. "Of course, a jury may ultimately conclude the opposite: that Timpa was not subdued and that he continued to pose an immediate threat throughout his restraint…. Ultimately, it is the job of the factfinder, not of this court, to resolve those factual disputes for itself."
In ruling as it did, the jury essentially sent the message that, while the officers' actions were unconstitutional, the facts were more nuanced than those presented in the Timpas' complaint. The police had still violated the Fourth Amendment, the jury concluded, but a reasonable officer could have run afoul of that standard.
That yearslong obstacle course the Timpas navigated to get that answer is not unique to them. Plaintiffs alleging government abuse must spend years clearing a dense thicket of hurdles, fighting appeal after appeal, for the opportunity to plead their case before a jury of their peers.
Many never make it that far. That includes a Georgia woman whose 10-year-old son was shot by an officer who was aiming at their non-threatening dog; two California men from whom officers allegedly stole $225,000 while executing a search warrant; and an elderly Georgia man whose house was wrongfully targeted in a SWAT raid. None were able to find the perfect court precedent required to circumvent qualified immunity, so none were permitted to go to trial, despite raising plausible allegations of unconstitutional conduct.
Those trials can certainly be expensive. Also expensive: making the taxpayer fund years of litigation and appeals so that other taxpayers are not able to air grievances and seek damages against the public servants whose salaries they pay. Government actors are almost always indemnified, meaning that any damages awarded are paid by the government, not the individual employee.
In her closing, Gowin zeroed in on accountability. "They've been accountable to you," she said. "That is the point of a trial." That is indeed the point. It took seven years to get there. Unfortunately, it almost didn't happen.