The family of Kayla Moore, a 41-year-old Black transgender woman who died in Berkeley Police Department custody, is appealing a wrongful death suit against the city of Berkeley at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco in January.
In 2013, Moore died after being restrained by officers responding to a 911 call from Moore’s roommate, who claimed that Moore — who had a history of schizophrenia and was under the influence of drugs and alcohol — was experiencing a mental health crisis. The Moore family’s wrongful death suit against the city alleges that the responding officers violated Moore’s rights and failed to adequately accommodate her after she was placed in police custody. Now, the family is pressing to have their case heard in front of a jury after the initial suit was dismissed by a U.S. District Court judge in 2018.
“The goal of the appeal is to allow a jury to fully examine the evidence related to the multiple claims in the family’s original lawsuit,” said Charlotte Halloran-Couch, an organizer with Justice 4 Kayla Moore. “We believe all of the family’s original claims deserve to be heard before a jury.”
The family’s claims include allegations of excessive force by BPD, unlawfully arresting Moore based on a warrant that was for another individual of the same legal name and police discrimination against Moore for being transgender, according to Halloran-Couch.
In his 2018 ruling, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer concluded that the burden of proof had not been met in determining the city “failed to reasonably accommodate Ms. Moore, or that it effected a discriminatory arrest.”
A separate internal BPD investigation also exonerated the involved officers of any wrongdoing, despite the city’s Police Review Commission, or PRC, concluding that Officer Gwendolyn Brown violated procedure during the arrest by neglecting to check Moore’s vital signs while she was in custody.
During an appeal of the commission’s findings, a judge ruled that the claims against Brown were “unfounded.”
“The city of Berkeley has fought this case tooth-and-nail; they’ve invested a lot of resources in terms of attorney time,” said the Moore family’s attorney Adante Pointer. “They have done everything within their power, in my opinion, to deny this family a shot at justice.”
Among multiple alleged discrepancies in the case, Pointer added that the coroner’s office’s ruling on Moore’s cause of death conflicts with the findings of an “expert” coroner that the Moores have consulted with.
The initial report from the coroner’s office concluded that drug intoxication, morbid obesity and an enlarged heart were contributing factors to her death — according to Dr. Werner Spitz, the coroner Pointer consulted with, Moore’s death could allegedly be attributed to the way she was handled by officers during the arrest and the position she was left in after being restrained.
The Moore family believes that because Breyer dismissed the suit before their case was heard in front of a jury, they were denied adequate consideration of the evidence.
“When you have a situation where there’s dispute of facts, it’s required that a jury resolve those disputes,” Pointer said. “We felt like there were too many disputes, and the jury are the proper people to determine and weigh the evidence.”
An ongoing effort by Berkeley Copwatch and Justice 4 Kayla Moore has called for supporters to show up to the hearing at the Court of Appeals in January and to “pack the court” in support of the Moores’ effort to have their case heard.
As a Black transgender woman, Moore’s death affects multiple different communities, according to Andrea Prichett, Berkeley Copwatch founder and former PRC commissioner. The effort to draw support for the Moores’ appeal is also aimed at mobilizing those communities to demand change in the way that mental health calls are handled by police.
“There’s been a lot of community support and concern,” Pointer said. “Having the community come out and support is a way of letting the family know that this isn’t going to be swept under the rug … that there are people willing to fight for her rights, even in her death.”