Boulder Sheriff Charged with Manslaughter Named in Earlier Lawsuit Over Excessive Force at the Jail

Two Boulder County sheriffs deputies have been charged with manslaughter in the death of 23-year-old Demetrius Shankling.  On September 9, 2018, Shankling, who had turned 23 that day, was being transported to the Addiction Recovery Center when he was found unresponsive in the back of a sheriff’s van.



Two deputies, James O’Brien and Adam Lunn, had determined Shankling to be highly intoxicated and needed to be transported to the detox center. CBS Denver reports that Shankling was placed on his stomach in a small compartment within a transport van. Investigators determined that both deputies had been trained NOT to place a handcuffed person in that position.

Shankling was found unresponsive after 16 minutes in the van. He died on October 6 never having regained consciousness. 

An autopsy revealed Shankling died from positional asphyxia based on being compressed into the compartment in the transport van and the coroner ruled his death to be homicide.

One of the officers charged with manslaughter is James O’Brien who was named in a lawsuit brought by Robert Cotton Kirkland who sustained a broken leg and other injuries in the Boulder County jail in 2011. Kirkland refused to settle his case, instead opting to bring his case to the Colorado Supreme Court where a jury ultimately ruled in favor of the officers.

We hear from Robert Kirkland about his reaction to hearing that O’Brien was involved in the death of Demetrius Shankling, as well as from David Lane, the attorney in his lawsuit, and from Joshua Johnson who created the Tortured in Boulder County Jail Facebook page and a petition on to call for video cameras in disciplinary areas of the jail.

KGNU reached out to the Boulder County Sheriff’s Department and asked whether O’Brien had other accusations of excessive force made against him and we were advised that we would need to fill out a formal Records Request form to get such information. KGNU asked whether O’Brien or the other officers named in Kirkland’s suit received any additional training or sanctions in response to his allegations and officer Mike Wagner emailed the following response:

“With respect to the Kirkland lawsuit, Boulder County contested the allegations made against the deputies in federal court and won the case after a jury trial. No deputies, including Dep. O’Brien, were disciplined or sanctioned from the unfounded allegations.”

Listen to the KGNU interview with Kirkland and Johnson from 2013. Photo l-r Kirkland, Johnson.