TAMPA — The telling of what transpired at a Hernando County home one day in 2009 differs depending on whom you ask.
Michael Bratt and his wife, Marjorie Youmans, say they were cleaning up after a Christmas party when deputies illegally entered their property, shocked Bratt with a Taser, and beat him so badly his eye socket was crushed, causing his eyeball to descend into his cheek cavity.
The deputies say Bratt was drunk when he lashed out at Steven George, dragged the deputy into the house, bashed his face into a coffee table and shocked him with his own Taser.
A jury will be asked to decide which story is true. Testimony began Tuesday in a federal trial over a $10 million lawsuit the couple filed against three deputies, alleging excessive force and false arrest.
"It could have been any family celebrating Christmas," attorney Steve Yerrid told the jury. "This cannot be allowed to stand."
Deputy George and fellow Deputy Louis Genovese sat quietly at a defense table as their attorney, Bobby Palmer, told the jury that Bratt was to blame for what happened.
"This case represents probably every police officer’s worst nightmare," said Palmer, who also represents former deputy Kenneth Van Tassel.
George was among the first witnesses to testify. He spoke matter-of-factly, glancing occasionally at Genovese, as he related his account.
The incident began with a noise complaint on a rural stretch called Snow Hill Road. A neighbor, known for placing frequent calls to law enforcement, reported hearing an explosion about 1:30 a.m. on Dec. 26.
When George arrived, the neighbor directed him to Bratt’s home next door. The deputy hopped a fence that surrounded the property. He didn’t bother trying a call box at the front gate, Yerrid told jurors.
When George knocked at the front door, Bratt yelled that he was trespassing, the deputy said. Bratt opened the door and asked to see the deputy’s badge. George shined a flashlight on the front of his uniform, he said.
At some point, Bratt’s wife stepped outside and stood behind the deputy as Bratt tried to grab her, George said. Bratt then grabbed the deputy.
George described being pulled into the house, through a hallway and into the living room. He said blood began to gush from his nose as his face slammed into a coffee table. He said Bratt grabbed his Taser, then shocked him as the struggle continued.
Although George claimed his nose was broken in the living room, and that he later crawled all the way back to the front door, he admitted that photographs from the scene show blood drops only in the foyer.
In an opening statement, Yerrid suggested that the deputy’s nose was actually broken when he plowed through the door and smacked his face on a wall.
Fellow deputies hustled to the home after hearing George’s radio calls, which included reports of a "deputy shot" and a "deputy stabbed." After their arrival, Bratt was taken out of the house and beaten, Yerrid said.
Geneovese, who weighed in excess of 300 pounds, drove his knee into Bratt’s face, crushing his orbital bone, Yerrid said. Photographs show him lying on grass, his cheeks streaked with blood, his mouth open, and one eye swollen shut.
Yerrid asked George about one photo, which shows Bratt lying face-down as a deputy stands with one foot placed on his back.
Had the deputy heard of it being called a "trophy photo?" Had he seen it displayed prominently around the Sheriff’s Office?
George’s answer to both: "No."
Palmer told the jury the eye injury occurred as Bratt tried to bite Deputy Van Tassel, who pushed him away, causing his face to hit a wall.
"But for Michael Bratt’s conduct, he would not have sustained that injury," Palmer said.
Though he was charged in state court with battery, a jury found Bratt not guilty.
The couple alleges that Genovese stopped repeatedly to continue to beat Bratt as he took him to a hospital in a patrol car. Their lawsuit also notes that George’s Taser was unaccounted for after the incident and that when it was examined later its data "appeared corrupted."
Tampa attorney Barry Cohen filed the lawsuit on behalf of Bratt in 2013. Cohen, battling leukemia, asked his longtime friend Yerrid to take over.
The trial is expected to last two weeks.
Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.
This story has been updated to reflect the following correction: The home where the 2009 incident occurred is on Snow Hill Road. An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect street name. An earlier version of this story also included misspellings of the names of Marjorie Youmans and Deputy Kenneth Van Tassel.