Family of NY Man Who Died After Police Beating Wins $35M

By Rachel Rippetoe | August 11, 2023, 11:13 PM EDT ·

A federal jury on Thursday awarded a $35 million verdict to the family of Long Island resident Kenny Lazo, who died in Suffolk County police custody in 2008.

The verdict came after a three-week trial for a wrongful death suit filed in 2009 that accused Suffolk County Police Department, Suffolk County and five police officers of violating Lazo's civil rights after Lazo, 24, died after he was beaten with fists and flashlights by Suffolk County police.

Lazo's family, including his mother Patricia Gonzalez and Jennifer Gonzalez, the mother of his now-adult son, Kenny Lazo Jr., also claimed there was an improper delay in the grand jury investigation into Lazo's death, which ultimately resulted in the jury declining to bring charges against the five officers involved. The county has an "institutional policy" of covering up police brutality against minorities, the complaint said. 

"After 15 years of waiting, justice has been served," Frederick K. Brewington, the attorney for Mr. Lazo's family, said in a statement Thursday. "It was absolutely appalling how the Suffolk County police physically abused and humiliated Mr. Lazo, then tried to cover it up. No family should have to go through what Mr. Lazo's family had to."

Jurors awarded Lazo's family $13.5 million in compensatory damages and $21.5 million in punitive damages. Brewington said in a release that it's considered to be one of largest verdicts in Suffolk County history.

The initial news report about Lazo's death on April 12, 2008, said he died after collapsing in an interview room at the Suffolk County Police Department; he'd been arrested half an hour earlier after "a violent struggle with officers following a traffic stop," Sgt. Edward Fandrey told a Newsday reporter at the time.

Police told reporters they pulled Lazo over on the interstate after seeing him sell drugs. According to reports, Lazo resisted arrest, elbowed one officer, reached for an officer's gun and tried to flee as they tackled him.

But in the complaint, Lazo's family told a very different story. They said officers had no reason to arrest Lazo, and he never threatened them or acted in a way that required the use of physical force. Officers instead made up an excuse to humiliate and beat him, hitting him with flashlights and other weapons, pinning his hands behind his back and taking his clothes off.

Even though officers knew Lazo was in need of medical attention when they took him to the station, they "failed to inform appropriate medical personnel" and Lazo was only given medical attention after he "was found unresponsive on the floor of the holding cell" at around 9 p.m., the complaint said. An autopsy found he died of cardiac arrest, but his family argued it also showed the brutality of Lazo's beatings.

"The autopsy report illustrates the unnecessary and excessive use of physical and deadly force," the complaint said. "[Lazo] received multiple contusions (bruises) in and around his body."

Brewington said in a statement at the time the suit was filed that Lazo's family's attorneys tried to work with the county to make more information about the case public, but "Suffolk County officials, Suffolk County Police officials and the district attorney's office delayed and then covered up the brutal torture of Mr. Lazo."

"We tried to work with the County of Suffolk, but it seems that the only way we can get their attention is by bringing an action," he said at the time. "They know that Kenny Lazo was the victim of homicide by the police and yet they demean his death and discount his life. We will pursue this case and ask a jury to decide what really happened."

Patricia and Jennifer Gonzalez are represented by Frederick K. Brewington, Albert Darnell Manuel III, Leah Elizabeth Jackson, Stephanie Michelle Platt and Cobia Malik Powell of the Law Offices of Frederick K. Brewington, Gregory Calliste Jr. of Phillips and Associates, Oscar Holt III and Scott A. Korenbaum. 

The County of Suffolk is represented by Marc A. Lindemann and Richard T. Dunne of the Suffolk County Department of Law. 

Suffolk County Police Department, Police Commissioner Richard Dormer and officers John Newton, James Scimone, William Judge, Christopher Talt and Joseph Link are represented by Marc A. Lindemann. 

The case is Gonzalez et al. v. County of Suffolk et al., case number 2:09-cv-01023, in the U.S. District Court Eastern District of New York

--Editing by Caitlin Wolper.

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