CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- An appeals court on Tuesday agreed with a federal judge who overturned a jury verdict and ruled against a Wood County sheriff's deputy accused of assaulting a prisoner.
A three-judge panel from the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals said there is "no doubt" that U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin didn't make a mistake in May 2012 when he overturned the verdict absolving the deputy, Jim Asbury.
When Goodwin overturned the verdict, he cited video surveillance footage that he said clearly showed Asbury choking and striking Brian Sawyer, who was arrested after Asbury was called to his home on a domestic violence complaint.
Federal judges may issue rulings "as a matter of law" or reverse jury verdicts if they find that the jury disregarded a substantial piece of evidence. Such rulings are rare.
Goodwin also ordered a new trial to determine how much Asbury, along with the Wood County Sheriff's Department and the Wood County Commission, owed Sawyer in damages. During that trial for damages last year, a settlement was reached. After Tuesday's decision, that means Sawyer will get a total of $125,000.
Lawyers for Asbury had asked the appeals court to overrule Goodwin's decision. They argued that Asbury applied necessary force to Sawyer in response to repeated physical threats.
When Goodwin overturned the verdict, he wrote that he believed the jury had ignored the footage from the holding cell. The footage showed Asbury thumping his chest at Sawyer, who was handcuffed to a concrete bench. Asbury then grabbed Sawyer around the throat, pulled his arm back and punched Sawyer twice in the face.
"The video clearly shows Deputy Asbury punching Mr. Sawyer in the face," Goodwin said in his order, "with the force of his blow knocking Mr. Sawyer's face to the side."
Asbury's lawyers argued that Goodwin improperly relied on the video footage in his ruling, but disregarded testimony that Asbury was responding to a real physical threat from Sawyer.
The lawyers also pointed out that law enforcement officers are permitted to apply force in a good-faith effort to restore order.