A jury Thursday awarded the family of Kenny Lazo of Bay Shore $35 million in compensatory and punitive damages for his 2008 death in Suffolk Police custody. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

A federal jury in Central Islip awarded $35 million — $13.5 million in compensatory damages and $21.5 million in punitive damages — on Thursday to the family of a Bay Shore man who died after he was beaten by Suffolk police following a 2008 traffic stop.

The family of Kenny Lazo, 24, of Bay Shore, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the county and its police department in 2009, arguing the police failed to seek medical treatment for Lazo after he was beaten. Suffolk police and county officials, it added, conducted a sham investigation into Lazo’s death to avoid accountability.

“Justice has been served. It’s been a long time coming. The police are being held accountable,” said Jennifer Gonzalez, Lazo’s former partner and the mother of his now-adult son, who along with other family members attended the three-week trial that took place 15 years after Lazo’s death.

The jurors told U.S. Magistrate Judge Steven L. Tiscione that they wanted to make a statement about the case shorty after they reached the verdict.

“Upon review of the evidence, we the jury feel strongly that the policies and practices of the Suffolk County Police Department should be better enforced to protect and serve the community,” the jury forewoman told Newsday.

“The failure to properly train, retrain and/or discipline officers directly led to this unfortunate situation,” said the forewoman, who said her first name was Erin but declined to give her last name. “Our hope is that actual change comes from this verdict.”

The verdict came a day after both sides summed up their version of events on April 12, 2008, during closing arguments.

Frederick K. Brewington, the attorney for Lazo’s family, called the monetary award one of the largest jury trial awards in Suffolk County history.

“It was absolutely appalling how the Suffolk County police physically abused and humiliated Mr. Lazo, then tried to cover it up,” Brewington said. “No family should have to go through what Mr. Lazo’s family had to.”

An aide for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone issued a statement late Thursday saying, “The County will be appealing this verdict.”

The officers and former officers named as defendants in the lawsuit — John Newton, James Scimone, William Judge, Christopher Talt and Joseph Link — declined to comment as they left the court.

Marc Lindemann, the attorney representing the police department, county and officers, also declined to comment. Representatives of the Suffolk police did not immediately return requests for comment.

Jurors spent about six hours Thursday deliberating the case, trying to decide whether police officers had used “appropriate and justified” force when they beat an unarmed Lazo and then refused to take him to a hospital for treatment.

Lazo was found unresponsive on the floor of a holding cell at approximately 9 p.m., less than an hour after he had been arrested, and pronounced dead at Southside Hospital 45 minutes later.

An autopsy conducted by the Suffolk County medical examiner determined that Lazo died from cardiac arrest “following exertion associated with prolonged physical altercation with multiple blunt impacts.” It also concluded that obesity was a factor in Lazo’s death.

During an hourlong closing argument Wednesday, Brewington painted the five officers named in lawsuit as callous and indifferent to Lazo’s suffering, beating him with flashlights and their fists on the ramp to the Southern State Parkway in Bay Shore.

He asked the jury to award Lazo’s family nearly $50 million, including for physical and mental suffering, lost earnings, lost enjoyment of life and punitive damages.

In his closing argument, Lindemann said the risk to officers that night was so severe, they had no choice during the “life-threatening” chain of events but to use whatever force deemed necessary.

“This was an emergency situation,” Lindemann said of the incident, which started when police pulled over Lazo’s Cadillac after suspecting he had just made a drug deal.

“They used force that was reasonable, appropriate and justified in this situation,” he said.

The civil trial offered a rare inside look at alleged police brutality cases in the county and included testimony offering up competing portrayals of Lazo: a churchgoing, hardworking, devoted father, or an alleged drug dealer driving a blue Cadillac and having a history of domestic disputes with the mother of his 4-year-old son.

The officers had stopped Lazo’s vehicle after he allegedly made a drug sale and committed several traffic violations, including running a stop sign, speeding and failing to signal.

Brewington said the officers “fabricated” a reason to pull over Lazo, using their authority to beat and humiliate the suspect, stripping him of his clothes and shoes and pummeling him with weapons when he attempted to flee. A total of 36 injuries were found on his body, including head, neck, torso and extremities, Brewington said.

A Suffolk County grand jury declined to bring charges against the five officers, while federal investigators reviewed Lazo’s death but also declined to file charges in 2009. One officer received a verbal reprimand for not bringing Lazo to the hospital, a violation of department protocol.

The depth of the Lazo disciplinary probe, along with others, matches several highlighted in Newsday’s 2022 Inside Internal Affairs investigation, which revealed that Suffolk police often imposed little or no penalties in cases involving serious injuries or deaths.

Earlier this week, Newsday reported exclusively that Suffolk County will pay $500,000 to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit brought by a construction worker who said that police officers brutally beat him during a 2012 altercation in a union hall parking lot.

The county attorney’s office disclosed the dollar amount for the first time in a letter on Aug. 3 seeking final settlement approval from U.S. Eastern District Magistrate Judge Steven Tiscione.

Steven McCune, 55, of Commack said he was permanently injured after officers subjected him to “barbaric physical and psychological treatment” for refusing to exit the car he was sleeping in behind the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 25 building in Hauppauge.

Records filed in McCune’s litigation and testimony in the Lazo case show that Suffolk police’s Internal Affairs Bureau exonerated the officers of wrongdoing in both cases without conducting interviews.

For many of the involved officers, the lawsuit depositions were the first time they had faced questions about their actions.

A federal jury in Central Islip awarded $35 million — $13.5 million in compensatory damages and $21.5 million in punitive damages — on Thursday to the family of a Bay Shore man who died after he was beaten by Suffolk police following a 2008 traffic stop.

The family of Kenny Lazo, 24, of Bay Shore, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the county and its police department in 2009, arguing the police failed to seek medical treatment for Lazo after he was beaten. Suffolk police and county officials, it added, conducted a sham investigation into Lazo’s death to avoid accountability.

“Justice has been served. It’s been a long time coming. The police are being held accountable,” said Jennifer Gonzalez, Lazo’s former partner and the mother of his now-adult son, who along with other family members attended the three-week trial that took place 15 years after Lazo’s death.

The jurors told U.S. Magistrate Judge Steven L. Tiscione that they wanted to make a statement about the case shorty after they reached the verdict.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • A federal jury in Central Islip awarded $35 million on Thursday to the family of a Bay Shore man who died after he was beaten by Suffolk police following a 2008 traffic stop.
  • The family of Kenny Lazo filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the county and its police department in 2009, arguing the police failed to seek medical treatment for Lazo after he was beaten. Suffolk police and county officials, it added, conducted a sham investigation into Lazo’s death in order to avoid accountability.
  • An aide for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone issued a statement late Thursday saying, "The County will be appealing this verdict."

“Upon review of the evidence, we the jury feel strongly that the policies and practices of the Suffolk County Police Department should be better enforced to protect and serve the community,” the jury forewoman told Newsday.

“The failure to properly train, retrain and/or discipline officers directly led to this unfortunate situation,” said the forewoman, who said her first name was Erin but declined to give her last name. “Our hope is that actual change comes from this verdict.”

The verdict came a day after both sides summed up their version of events on April 12, 2008, during closing arguments.

Attorney Fred Brewington, left, talks to the media after the...

Attorney Fred Brewington, left, talks to the media after the verdict with family members Kenny Lazo Jr. and his mom, Jennifer Gonzalez, at court in Central Islip Thursday. Credit: Rick Kopstein

Frederick K. Brewington, the attorney for Lazo’s family, called the monetary award one of the largest jury trial awards in Suffolk County history.

“It was absolutely appalling how the Suffolk County police physically abused and humiliated Mr. Lazo, then tried to cover it up,” Brewington said. “No family should have to go through what Mr. Lazo’s family had to.”

An aide for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone issued a statement late Thursday saying, “The County will be appealing this verdict.”

The officers and former officers named as defendants in the lawsuit — John Newton, James Scimone, William Judge, Christopher Talt and Joseph Link — declined to comment as they left the court.

Marc Lindemann, the attorney representing the police department, county and officers, also declined to comment. Representatives of the Suffolk police did not immediately return requests for comment.

Jury deliberates six hours

Jurors spent about six hours Thursday deliberating the case, trying to decide whether police officers had used “appropriate and justified” force when they beat an unarmed Lazo and then refused to take him to a hospital for treatment.

Lazo was found unresponsive on the floor of a holding cell at approximately 9 p.m., less than an hour after he had been arrested, and pronounced dead at Southside Hospital 45 minutes later.

An autopsy conducted by the Suffolk County medical examiner determined that Lazo died from cardiac arrest “following exertion associated with prolonged physical altercation with multiple blunt impacts.” It also concluded that obesity was a factor in Lazo’s death.

During an hourlong closing argument Wednesday, Brewington painted the five officers named in lawsuit as callous and indifferent to Lazo’s suffering, beating him with flashlights and their fists on the ramp to the Southern State Parkway in Bay Shore.

He asked the jury to award Lazo’s family nearly $50 million, including for physical and mental suffering, lost earnings, lost enjoyment of life and punitive damages.

In his closing argument, Lindemann said the risk to officers that night was so severe, they had no choice during the “life-threatening” chain of events but to use whatever force deemed necessary.

“This was an emergency situation,” Lindemann said of the incident, which started when police pulled over Lazo’s Cadillac after suspecting he had just made a drug deal.

“They used force that was reasonable, appropriate and justified in this situation,” he said.

The civil trial offered a rare inside look at alleged police brutality cases in the county and included testimony offering up competing portrayals of Lazo: a churchgoing, hardworking, devoted father, or an alleged drug dealer driving a blue Cadillac and having a history of domestic disputes with the mother of his 4-year-old son.

The officers had stopped Lazo’s vehicle after he allegedly made a drug sale and committed several traffic violations, including running a stop sign, speeding and failing to signal.

Brewington said the officers “fabricated” a reason to pull over Lazo, using their authority to beat and humiliate the suspect, stripping him of his clothes and shoes and pummeling him with weapons when he attempted to flee. A total of 36 injuries were found on his body, including head, neck, torso and extremities, Brewington said.

Police officers not charged

A Suffolk County grand jury declined to bring charges against the five officers, while federal investigators reviewed Lazo’s death but also declined to file charges in 2009. One officer received a verbal reprimand for not bringing Lazo to the hospital, a violation of department protocol.

The depth of the Lazo disciplinary probe, along with others, matches several highlighted in Newsday’s 2022 Inside Internal Affairs investigation, which revealed that Suffolk police often imposed little or no penalties in cases involving serious injuries or deaths.

Earlier this week, Newsday reported exclusively that Suffolk County will pay $500,000 to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit brought by a construction worker who said that police officers brutally beat him during a 2012 altercation in a union hall parking lot.

The county attorney’s office disclosed the dollar amount for the first time in a letter on Aug. 3 seeking final settlement approval from U.S. Eastern District Magistrate Judge Steven Tiscione.

Steven McCune, 55, of Commack said he was permanently injured after officers subjected him to “barbaric physical and psychological treatment” for refusing to exit the car he was sleeping in behind the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 25 building in Hauppauge.

Records filed in McCune’s litigation and testimony in the Lazo case show that Suffolk police’s Internal Affairs Bureau exonerated the officers of wrongdoing in both cases without conducting interviews.

For many of the involved officers, the lawsuit depositions were the first time they had faced questions about their actions.

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