Lawsuit Ties Inmate Death to ‘Deliberate Indifference’
The Davidson County Sheriff’s Office was responsible for a Honduran immigrant’s death because of its failure to adequately screen detention officers, a federal lawsuit contends.
The lawsuit also accuses the sheriff’s office of providing insufficient training in appropriate use of force, overlooking “a pattern of excessive force,” and failing to investigate citizen complaints about brutality.
The lawsuit, filed on Nov. 21 in the US District Court in Greensboro by Jose Claros-Castro as representative of the estate of brother Carlos Claros-Castro, also names Robert Hyatt in his capacity as Davidson county manager as a defendant. The lawsuit contends that Hyatt “knew or should have known that by failing to provide adequate funding to properly staff the jail, the result would be an increased use of excessive force by the jail’s detention officers.”
William L. Hill, a Greensboro lawyer who is representing the county, declined to comment on Nov. 26 because he had not yet reviewed the lawsuit.
Court testimony at the trial of Ronald Parker revealed five detention officers were responsible for upwards of 270 inmates on the night Claros-Castro died.
The 28-year-old Claros-Castro, an employee at Elizabeth’s Pizza who spoke little English, was killed in an isolation observation cell at the jail on the night of Jan. 7 after being arrested by the Thomasville police for driving while intoxicated about 40 hours earlier. According to court records, Claros-Castro seized a mop handle and refused to relinquish it to an inmate custodian, prompting Sgt. Brandon Huie to attack him with a Taser and pepper spray before entering the cell alone and beating the inmate with an extendable baton and his fists.
Huie’s supervisor, Lt. Ronald Parker, found Huie and Claros-Castro wrestling on a bottom bunk bed, and joined the struggle. Parker admitted in court to striking the inmate in the thighs with his baton but was unable to explain the pools of blood near Claros-Castro’s head, the wounds on the back of the dead man’s hands and elbows indicative of someone shielding himself from a volley of blows, or his decision to have a third detention officer retrieve the broken pieces of a Taser rather than administer first aid to the dying inmate.
The 44-year-old Parker was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter by a Davidson County jury and is serving a sentence at Craven Correctional Institution in Vanceboro. He is scheduled for release in December 2007. Huie, who is now 26, pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and is serving a 20-month sentence at Hoke Correctional Institution. Neither man could be reached for comment.
In addition to Huie, Parker and Hyatt, the lawsuit names as defendants Sheriff David Grice, retired Maj. Dallas Hedrick, Capt. Edwin Curry, Officer Mike Shell, two other unnamed members of the jail staff and the county’s insurance company.
The family seeks $100 million in compensatory and punitive damages in the deprivation of civil rights and wrongful death complaint based on the belief that jail staff demonstrated deliberate indifference to Claros-Castro’s welfare.
The lawsuit alleges that Huie entered Claros-Castro’s cell and struck the inmate “with the Taser gun in one hand and a steel handled asp baton in the other, violently punching, kicking and hitting decedent while decedent was disabled by the pepper spray and trying to fend off Huie’s blows.”
As to Parker’s role, the lawsuit alleges that “rather than attempting to stop the altercation or minimize the immediate danger to the life of the decedent, defendant Parker exacerbated the problem by joining the assault and battery of the decedent.” Shell and two other unnamed defendants failed to intervene in the killing, the lawsuit alleges. Shell could not be reached for comment.
An autopsy by the NC Office of the Medical Examiner found that Claros-Castro died from multiple injuries, including blunt trauma to the head and asphyxiation.
The lawsuit alleges that Grice “confirmed publicly that he supported the officers, did not intend to discipline them or even put them on temporary leave from their positions during numerous pending criminal investigations.”
The Claros-Castro family alleges that the jail administration was “deliberately indifferent in the training of jail personnel in regard to the appropriate lawful constitutional policies, procedures and protocols for the use of force”; that they “knew or should have known that it would be extremely difficult for a reduced number of officers to safely deal with aggressive and combative inmates”; that they “failed to implement policies to ensure that the jail would be properly staffed at all times”; and that they were “aware of a pattern of excessive force” by Huie and Parker and “failed to terminate their employment.”
Sheriff Grice declined to comment on the lawsuit. Maj. Hedrick could not be reached for comment.
Paul D. Haynes, an inmate at the jail in late 2005 who was held on charges of armed robbery and now lives in Yadkin County, corroborated some of the lawsuit’s claims about the administration of the jail in an article comment submitted to yesweekly.com on Nov. 23. Haynes said he was placed on suicide watch and held in Cell 33, the unit designated for inmates kept in isolation and under observation where Claros-Castro was killed.
“I witnessed many cases of neglect, indifference and sometimes what I saw as abuse of the inmates,” wrote Haynes, who is 51. “Any complaints fell on deaf ears. I, myself, was on suicide watch. I was never seen by a mental health professional and was denied access to the jail chaplain even though I requested to talk to him.”
Grice said Haynes received full medical attention and had access to a doctor at the jail.
“Two of the best doctors in Davidson County are contracted by the jail,” he added. “They come in two times a week. We have two nursing positions. It’s hard to keep them filled. One nurse works herself to death. She has an assistant to fill the meds. To say they don’t get proper healthcare is just a misnomer.”
Sanitary conditions were also less than adequate, Haynes said.
“During the six months I was there we were only, twice, given supplies to clean our toilets,” he wrote. “Most of the time we used toothpaste and a Styrofoam cup in an attempt to clean and keep the odor down. When we ran out of toilet paper and when we requested more we were often told by the guards they did not have time to get more. We resorted to tearing off strips of our sheets to meet that need.”
Grice said the county provides a “care package” for inmates if they don’t have money to pay for items such as toothpaste and soap.
“We try to run as clean a jail as we can, but we don’t always get a lot of cooperation from [inmates],” Grice said.
The Claros-Castro lawsuit contends that the sheriff’s office “had a policy, practice or custom of allowing their officers to restrain persons by way of excessive force procedures without monitoring and evaluation the medical condition of the restrained person, posing an unreasonable and unjustified risk of positional asphyxia and death in deliberate indifference to, and reckless disregard of the welfare of the public at large,” adding that the sheriff’s office habitually allowed “officers to use deadly, excessive and/or unreasonable force without fear of discipline, thus creating an atmosphere where such behavior is accepted, approved and ratified in deliberate indifference to, and reckless disregard of the welfare of the public at large.”
“We are prepared to present evidence of any and all allegations in the lawsuit,” said Richard Summers, an Atlanta lawyer who is representing the family. “That pattern of conduct is what shows the deliberate indifference to consequences, which is the key to the complaint. Those are crucial aspects to this case since they go to what the higher-ups knew.”
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