21-year vigil ends for comatose Memphis man

Friday was moving day for Pat Brunson-Ware after almost 21 years holding vigil and hoping against all odds that her son, Bert, would suddenly awake from a coma.

Brunson-Ware removed Teddy bears, photographs and a framed print with the message “Today Is A New Day” from shelves in her son’s room. Bert would have been 43 on Aug. 16, but just after 9 p.m. Thursday, his mother said, “The Lord spoke to him, and he just left me.”

Bert had been gravely ill since July 15, fighting an infection and having difficulty breathing. When he opened his eyes Thursday, it was the first time in a week. “He looked like had done a turnaround,” his mother said. But it was more like his last look at a world just beyond his reach since 1991.

An attorney told Pat Brunson-Ware early on that her son’s condition was a “fate worse than death.”

Bert Brunson was 22 in 1991 and had earned football and track trophies at Hamilton High School. He was working as a skycap at Memphis International Airport when he was stopped on suspicion of driving under the influence by Shelby County Sheriff’s deputies.

Two deputies said they stopped to let Brunson use the rest room at a service station. There the officers said Brunson tried to grab one of their guns and escape. Two other deputies soon arrived. Brunson was struck in the head with nightsticks, hog-tied and placed on his stomach in the back seat of a cruiser.

Face down on the seat, his oxygen supply was cut off, leaving him in what his mother called a persistent vegetative state. Brunson’s stepfather, Lionel Ware, said doctors told them there was little chance his son would ever emerge from the coma. “A neurologist told us if he didn’t wake up in four years he never would.”

Bert’s mother, a U.S. Postal Service trainer, sued, accusing the officers of using unnecessary and unconstitutional force. The officers remained on duty with pay, but the county agreed before trial to settle the federal lawsuit, paying Brunson-Ware $3.5 million and agreeing to pay the cost of her son’s nursing-home care for the rest of his life. It was the biggest payout from a law enforcement agency at the time and came with assurances that hog-tying was never to be used again by law enforcement officers in Shelby County.



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