Originally created 11/28/02

Paralyzed man sues police officers



ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. - Marshall Burns has spent the past year of his life learning how to live without the use of his arms or legs.

The 25-year-old St. Augustine resident has been paralyzed from the neck down since he was arrested last November during an altercation at a nightclub on Anastasia Island.

Someone has to give him medicine every few hours and hold a cup with an extra-long straw to his mouth so he can wash the pills down.

He's learning how to use an electric wheelchair through an attachment so he can move his head to steer the wheelchair.

His girlfriend shares her notes from a college course the two are taking together, and he uses a mouth stick to turn pages so he can read his textbook.

"Half of my life has just been taken away from me, and I have to deal with it," Mr. Burns said. "My parents have to deal with it. My friends have to deal with it. My brothers have to deal with it. There just needs to be some justice."

Mr. Burns' family is seeking that justice through a lawsuit they filed in September against the city of St. Augustine and the two police officers involved in his arrest, Jerry Whitehead and John Sheppard.

"We don't feel there's been any improper conduct on the part of our police officers or the department, and we intend to vigorously defend the lawsuit," City Attorney Jim Wilson said. A jury trial is scheduled in March.

Police Chief David Shoar said it's inappropriate for him or Officer Whitehead, who is still a St. Augustine police officer, to comment. Officer Sheppard left the Police Department shortly after Mr. Burns' arrest and now is an investigator with the State Attorney's Office in Jacksonville. He also declined to comment.

Mr. Burns' attorney, Daryl Parks of Tallahassee, said he'd like Mr. Burns to get at least $10 million in the lawsuit that claims the city, police department and officers were negligent and violated his constitutional rights.

Mr. Parks said he estimates that's how much Mr. Burns' medical treatment will cost for the rest of his life.

Florida law limits the amount of money a city can be sued for on an act of negligence to $100,000 a person. If a jury awards Mr. Burns more than that, the Legislature would have to approve the additional money. But there's no limit on the amount of money a person could receive for a constitutional rights violation, Mr. Wilson said.

"We just want Marshall taken care of," Mr. Parks said. "Why should his parents be sentenced to take care of him for something they didn't do?"

His parents and 30-year-old sister share the responsibilities of feeding, washing and dressing Mr. Burns. They take him to his doctor's appointments, help him with his physical therapy and regularly turn him in his bed so he won't develop sores.

"My lifestyle basically has altered," said Rowinia Gassaway, his sister. "The things that I used to be able to do, I'm not able to do any more. All the daily aspects that you would do for yourself, I do for him."

Mr. Burns was arrested Nov. 16, 2001, outside Christopher's nightclub after police were called to an altercation there. He was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest with violence, but the charges were later dropped.

Officers Whitehead and Sheppard were exonerated in an internal police investigation. The investigation concluded the men weren't guilty of any misconduct, had probable cause to arrest Mr. Burns, didn't use excessive force in the arrest and sought medical treatment for Mr. Burns in a reasonable amount of time.