Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Was Juan Mendoza Farias beaten to death by Arpaio's Guards?.
deaths — like Juan Mendoza Farias' — are but one indication that there may be a systematic violation of constitutional rights in Arpaio's jails. I believe that Arpaio's jails violate a number of constitutional rights, including the right to medical and mental care; Also the jails are overcrowded and inhumane.
On December 2, 2007, a 40-year-old man named Juan Mendoza Farias was arrested and booked into the Maricopa County Jail. Like a lot of people who come through Sheriff Joe Arpaio's doors, Farias' offense was DUI-related, a probation violation.
Farias wound up with a death sentence.
After three days, he was clearly going through alcohol withdrawal. According to written accounts from detention officers, Farias became hostile and started resisting their orders.
When that happened, officers cuffed Farias and put his legs in shackles and moved him to an isolated "safe" or "soft" cell, designed to prevent him from hurting himself or others. The officers fired six rounds of crowd-control "pepper balls" at Farias and shocked him with at least two Tasers.
Later, jail officials moved Farias into the psychiatric ward, according to the reports they wrote after his death.
Eleven officers teamed up to move Farias. They swarmed him, wrapped a blanket over his head, and strapped a leather restraint, known as a "belly belt," around the blanket to hold it in place.
Then they put him in a wheelchair with restraints.
"Get me out of here. They just kidnapped me. They are trying to shoot me. They just [shot] me on my legs. Somebody is trying to kill me," Farias yelled as the officers surrounded him, according to one sergeant's report.
Another officer wrote that Farias was "talking nonsense."
Maybe not. Photos show that he was, indeed, shot in the legs — by Tasers and pepper balls. And he did stop breathing minutes after shouting that he was being killed.
As officers pulled Farias out of the wheelchair, they wrestled a "spit mask" over his mouth. Spit masks are used to cover an inmate's face below the nose; they're supposed to be used only if an inmate is biting or spitting.
Officers then pushed Farias face down on his stomach — a deadly position that can lead to suffocation if guards push down too hard. It's well known in law enforcement that an inmate on his stomach can easily die from "positional asphyxiation." If the inmate is cuffed behind the back and officers apply too much pressure, the lungs simply can't function. A mask over the mouth — limiting airflow — can exacerbate the situation.
Two officers held Farias' legs and other guards pinned down his arms and back while yet another "held his head down" for nearly 10 minutes, according to the reports.
Farias was fighting for his life. The county medical examiner documented "blunt force injuries" on his face, torso, and limbs. His neck muscles hemorrhaged internally from the strain, and a gash was notched out of his nose — either from being struck or from being pressed into something.
As the guards held him face down, one noticed that Farias was no longer moving or breathing. The guards rolled him over and pulled the spit mask off his mouth. It was filled with blood. So were his nostrils.
The guards attempted CPR, but it didn't work. Farias was transported to St. Joseph's Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Juan Mendoza Farias is not the first inmate to die after a violent exchange with guards in Arpaio's jail. In the past 12 years, at least four other men have died after exchanges with guards. And those are just the ones we know about, the ones whose families sued Arpaio and won hefty payments.
In one case, a jury found officers responsible for killing 33-year old Charles Agster, a mentally retarded man who weighed 125 pounds.
That jury awarded $9 million to Agster's family in 2006. It was one of more than 2,500 inmate lawsuits against Arpaio that have cost the county more than $43 million (see "Inhumanity Has a Price," John Dickerson, December 20, 2007>).
This is the first time you're reading about Farias, even though he died in December. That's because Arpaio isn't open-mouthed when it comes to the deaths of his inmates.
If not for an anonymous tip to New Times, Farias' death would still be secret. Even after New Times requested specific records about Farias' death, the sheriff refused to hand them over, citing an "ongoing investigation."
The Maricopa County medical examiner released the records, in response to a public-records request from New Times.
Otherwise, the details of Farias' death would be unknown to all but his family, anyone with unrestricted access to the sheriff's records, and the medical examiner who inspected his corpse.
The examiner concluded that the manner of Farias' death was undetermined. But she reported "complications of chronic alcoholic withdrawal associated with cardiopulmonary arrest during subdual for combative and violent behavior," adding "hypertrophic and dilated cardiomyopathy with coronary artery disease." The "prone restraint on bed," the spit mask, and the altercation with the guards also contributed to Farias' death, she wrote.
In other words, the excitement required more oxygen in Farias' lungs, but the mask over his mouth and the weight on his back restricted his lungs from functioning. An underlying and non-lethal heart disease meant that Farias' heart couldn't handle the combined weight and lack of oxygen.
New Times asked an out-of-state medical examiner to review Farias' records. He concluded that Farias was beaten and then suffocated
I certainly would list restraint asphyxiation as a component here," said Dr. Dan Spitz, medical examiner for Macomb County, Michigan. "I wouldn't classify this death as anything to do with alcohol withdrawal."
Spitz said it's difficult to know if and how much the guards could be at fault — because medical examiners have to rely on written testimony from those same guards to determine what happened.
In Farias' case, those written testimonies are suspect. Two of the guards' written testimonies are word-for-word identical in places, a red flag in any death investigation. Two additional reports are exact copies of each other, down to the punctuation and capitalization.
That's one reason why jails have surveillance cameras — for accountability. Video footage could show whether Farias actually was aggressive toward officers. It could also show how much force the officers used on an inmate who was already cuffed, shackled, restrained with a leather corrections belt, and suffering from alcohol withdrawal.
On July 25, New Times requested that video and other records related to Farias' death. The MCSO has refused to produce the footage.
Captain Paul Chagolla did not respond specifically to repeated requests for the video and other investigative materials. Lieutenant Dot Culhane, "legal liaison" for MCSO, told New Times the request would not be granted because the material is part of an ongoing investigation, but she did not give a specific reason why releasing the materials would harm the investigation, as required by Arizona public-records law.
Attorneys who regularly request video and other records from the jail say the sheriff stopped producing such videos after two cases in the late '90s, both of which showed guards beating inmates. One of those inmates died, and the other's neck was broken during a separate incident.
Those videos resulted in two lawsuit settlements that totaled more than $9 million. Since then, attorneys say they see video only when a judge orders it. Even then, the videos are usually ruined or rendered useless.
"We had one case where a magnet was put to the video to ruin it," says Joel Robbins, an attorney who represents inmates and their families against Arpaio.
"The cases I have are regularly missing papers, missing documents. When they kill someone, they don't ever seem to have the report done. They'll hide it until you get a judge order to hand it over."
Robbins says any citizen should have the legal right to review jail footage because about 70 percent of inmates are still considered innocent as they await trial, and because public tax dollars fund the jail and its employees.
"We ought to know what our problems are if we pay taxes to a government agency," Robbins says. "The MCSO hides the problems and puts their little press releases out on whatever they want people to focus on. They want you to sit there and just eat up whatever Arpaio has to say about the topic of the day. They don't want you to know what actually goes into the sausage."
Juan Mendoza Farias' story is still untold, to some extent. Other jail deaths have been described in excruciating detail, though, as the result of years in court proceedings. The judgments and settlements in the following four deaths alone total $20.25 million.
Dr. Dan Spitz, the medical examiner in Michigan, says that knowing the truth about an inmate's final moments is crucial in determining the true cause of death. That's why only video footage could show exactly what happened to Farias, he says.
"It's hard to know what to believe. The story [as reported by guards] on these cases is really a big part of the investigation . . . the stories that you get, especially in a jail, where everybody knows each other and everybody gets together to discuss it ahead of time are very suspect," Spitz says.
"It leaves a big hole in what a forensic pathologist needs to be certain to know what's going on."
The Maricopa County medical examiner agrees that it's hard to know just what happened. "The manner of death was found to be undetermined, because the extent that the decedent's interaction with the jail officers contributed (if at all) to his natural process of a metabolic disorder due to chronic alcohol abuse can not be clarified," she wrote.
But Spitz says that even without the video, it's clear that alcohol abuse alone did not kill Farias. "I don't agree with the cause of death as listed," Spitz says of the county examiner's "undetermined" conclusion. "I think there are components that are accurate, but I wouldn't classify this death as anything to do with alcohol withdrawal. He's a chronic alcoholic, but there's no indication that he's undergoing active withdrawal
By John Dickerson At Phoenix New Times.