Too much force? Part 3

NOW: Too much force? Part 3

For three months ABC57 News investigated whether a Berrien County Sheriff’s deputy used too much force during an arrest in Eau Claire, Michigan on May 2, 2019.

So far, we’ve shown you the body and dashcam video of the incident, multiple court documents and police reports obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. We also traveled hundreds of miles to find independent experts to review the video and documents. Then we met a man in Michiana who has a very similar story to tell.

Jason Zuhl of Benton Harbor shared his reaction to seeing the video of the May incident.

“I got goosebumps, went back, flashback to the past," Zuhl said.

The video shows 38-year-old Daniel White walking, and briefly running, away from officers as they tried to question him about assaulting his girlfriend outside the Chemical Bank ATM on Main Street.

White stopped, and appeared to surrender, but Deputy Jason Haskins runs up and suddenly kicks White in the stomach, then takes him to the ground and the officers get one handcuff on him.

Then Haskins uses his Taser and punches White twice in the head trying to get his other hand cuffed.

Zuhl once sued Berrien County and Deputy Haskins, but lost, after he wound up with a black eye, just like White did, during a search warrant involving the same deputy.

It was just before 6:00 a.m. on January 29, 2010 when Zuhl was living in a rented house on Red Arrow Highway in Stevensville.

He was waiting for a ride to work, but police thought someone living there was selling drugs.

"Sitting on my couch, heard a knock on the door. There was three or four individuals out there dressed in black. My wife at the time was working in a bar late night. Thought it was some of her friends, I turned around to wake her up,” Zuhl said.

That’s when he says the officers kicked down the front door with Deputy Haskins leading the charge carrying a gun and a heavy-duty police flashlight.

“[The door] went flying open and here they come in like a pack of wild dogs. Officer Haskins he comes running at me gun in one hand Maglight in the other. Cracked me hard in the eye with a Maglight,” Zuhl said.

Zuhl’s doctor determined he suffered “ocular trauma.”

Nine years later, he still needs a cornea transplant in his right eye but cannot afford it.

Zuhl filed a federal civil rights lawsuit claiming excessive force and unreasonable search and seizure even though police did find some marijuana in the house.

“All charges were dropped and the only thing I lost was my eye,” Zuhl said.

Detroit civil rights Attorney Hugh Davis represented Zuhl in the long-running lawsuit they eventually lost in February 2018.

"Without a word, Haskins hits Zuhl in the right eye partially blinding him, for no reason. I've been trying police cases for 50 years and we were astonished,” Davis said.

Even before the raid, Zuhl had some issues with the same eye and the defense attorneys used that to their advantage with the jury.

"They claimed that his failure to properly treat his pre-existing condition is what caused his partial blindness, not the strike with the flashlight to the eye,” Davis said.

In court testimony, Deputy Haskins described the contact with Zuhl as more of an accident, calling it a “collision” claiming they were both “going for the same real estate” apparently casting enough doubt to convince the jury.

Zuhl maintains it was not accidental.

“No, it was not. He seen me the whole time and I seen him when that door came flying open," Zuhl said.

We also asked attorney Davis what he made of that argument.

“It's factually impossible. You can't bump into somebody and partially blind them,” Davis said.

Davis and his partner Cynthia Heenan watched the bodycam video of the Eau Claire arrest involving White, and the courtroom testimony from Deputy Haskins.

“As I got within five feet of him, he turned around and brought up both his hands in a clenched fist, in an aggressive state,” Haskins stated in court.

Heenan saw the video repeatedly and in slow motion.

“Didn't see that at all. The first thing I saw was that he [Daniel White] raised his arms after Haskins lifted his leg. It was a defensive posture not an aggressive or assaultive posture,” Heenan said.

Zuhl says it all seems very familiar.

"I can totally relate to that because that's what I was doing when he clocked me,” Zuhl said.

Zuhl wants Deputy Haskins fired, or at least reprimanded and retrained because he fears another suspect like him or White could get punished even before being charged with or convicted of a crime.

“You can't treat people like that. You can't. Truth of the story is, my eye was just fine before they kicked in that door. I didn't need a cornea transplant before they kicked in my door,” Zuhl said.

Zuhl was not charged or convicted in the raid on his house.

White did plead guilty to domestic violence, resisting arrest and obstruction and is now serving 18 months to three years in state prison.

White’s handwritten excessive force complaint was quickly dismissed by Berrien County Sheriff Paul Bailey who told ABC57 in a statement, Haskins used “reasonable force” when making the arrest.

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