Chokehold

A run-in with police left Godwin Omokaro blind and brain-damaged, but a federal judge won't let a jury even consider whether his rights were violated


At 40 years old, a white, aluminum folding cane his frequent companion, Godwin Omokaro still organizes his life around DART. But instead of navigating a bus through the streets of the city, which he did six and seven days a week for two years, he now calls HandiRide two days in advance to make an appointment every time he needs to go someplace.

For the past year, those destinations have been fairly fixed and limited. Tuesdays and Thursdays, he travels to Matrix Rehabilitation, a Las Colinas clinic for occupational and physical therapy. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, he spends several hours a day at the Lighthouse for the Blind. There he learns skills to make him more independent, undergoes speech therapy, and volunteers in a work lab that prepares clients to re-enter the work force.

"When he first started coming to the Lighthouse, he was very depressed," says Allison Gerron, supervisor of the work-adjustment training program. "He felt so helpless, so hopeless and discouraged. From people who worked with him and from looking at his scrapbook, it was obvious he had been very successful at DART. He had been the one from his family who had made it. He was very proud of his achievements."

It didn't help his spirits that shortly after he started going to the Lighthouse, he was arrested and put in jail. A Lighthouse volunteer had taken him to get a valid picture identification card at the Department of Public Safety because the police had kept his driver's license. When a clerk checked Omokaro's history in the computer, an outstanding warrant for his arrest came up on the screen. Until that moment, Omokaro had no idea the police had charged him with resisting arrest and violating curfew that night in the park. He was immediately arrested at the DPS office and held in jail overnight until he could post bond the next morning. Earlier this spring, the District Attorney's Office dismissed the charges against him "in the interest of justice," according to the order.

Omokaro has made an indelible impression on the therapists and counselors who have worked with him. Last year, when the Medicare funding that paid for his physical and occupational therapy ran out, Matrix Rehabilitation offered to give him a year of free service, citing his "hard work" and "cooperative and pleasant" manner.

Gerron is not surprised by Matrix's generosity. "Everyone who comes in contact with Godwin cares about him, because he is such a caring person," she says. "I haven't worked with someone like him before. His overwhelming appreciation and helpfulness is striking. He has touched all of us in a profound way."

Omokaro recently sent a card thanking his therapists and counselors at the Lighthouse. "God has really used you guys to help me in my times of need because he (Lord) cannot come down from heaven to do these things," reads the letter Omokaro dictated to a friend. "... If everybody in the world were like you guys, the whole world would have been a beautiful and wonderful place to live. Because I feel free as air when I am around you guys."

Omokaro has a way of detecting when people are upset, and his gentleness, Gerron says, has a soothing effect on them. During the summer, she explains by way of example, a young high school boy comes to Gerron's work lab, where he assembles spatulas. Hyperactive and blind, the boy has a hard time staying on task. So Omokaro, whose job it is to disassemble and count the spatulas to see whether the clients are increasing their speed and productivity, walked to the other side of the workstation to do his job next to the boy.

"Godwin has a calming influence on him," Gerron says. "He really helped a lot in this situation. He helped keep him on task."

Although his therapists are impressed with how hard Omokaro works to regain the abilities he has lost, his deficits are significant and will make it hard for him to find work. He does not have enough dexterity to assemble the items -- binders and markers -- the Lighthouse makes under contract with the military. Nor is he able to use a keyboard or even read Braille. His speech, while improving, also poses a problem. According to Dr. Thomas Salmon of the North Texas Neuroscience Center, who evaluated Omokaro in the spring of 1997, "Mr. Omokaro appears to have suffered a brain injury that is most probably due to a combination of head trauma and cerebral anoxia [oxygen deprivation]...He has severely decreased visual acuity...modest to sever dysarthria [articulation disorder caused by a nerve defect]...impaired fine motor control...His gait is very slightly unsteady and wide-based."

"But his personality is such a strength, the way he is with people," says Gerron.

In the meantime, he must rely on government support and the kindness of friends. He lives on $684 a month in Social Security disability. His church pays half the rent on his Webb Chapel apartment, and Ramona Courtney and her family help him out financially as well. Courtney and some of his other friends also cook his meals, take him shopping, and clean his apartment.

"This is such a tragedy," Gerron says. "He was just minding his own business. He didn't do anything wrong. He was just at the wrong place at the wrong time, and he was the wrong color."

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