One jailer pleads guilty in inmate death

by Jordan Green

A little more than six months after a 28-year-old Honduran immigrant employed as a cook at a Thomasville pizzeria was beaten to death in the Davidson County Jail, a sheriff’s deputy has pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and begun a 16-to-20 month sentence.

A second correctional officer charged with second-degree murder has so far turned down a similar plea agreement and will likely face a jury trial next month, while an ongoing FBI investigation leaves open the possibility that the US Department of Justice will file federal civil rights charges in response to the killing of inmate Carlos Claros-Castro.

Brandon Huie apologized to Claros-Castro’s family before being sentence by Davidson County Superior Court Judge Erwin Spainhour in Lexington on June 30, said Richard Summers, an Atlanta lawyer who is representing the inmate’s family. The 25-year-old Huie began serving his sentence at Piedmont Correctional Institution in Salisbury on the same day.

‘“The family is generally pleased that at least Huie has been held accountable,’” the lawyer said. ‘“They would have liked to see him get more time, but they understand that the judge was constrained because North Carolina law only allows for a maximum of sixteen to twenty months for involuntary manslaughter because the defendant had no previous record.’”

Lack of complete data makes it difficult to know how common it is for police or correctional officials to be held accountable for excessive force, but anecdotal information suggests it is rare for officials to serve time for the death of an inmate, said Allyson Collins, who has monitored efforts to address police misconduct as deputy director of the Police Assessment Resource Center in Los Angeles.

‘“As far as serving time, it’s pretty unusual,’” she said. ‘“Prosecutors remain hesitant to go after officers that injure people. That isn’t because these aren’t serious offenses. When there’s a case against someone in law enforcement prosecutors know how hard it will be to get a jury willing to convict. The police can always say they were trying to protect lives. Police officers are in court a lot, and they’re pretty good at knowing what to say and what not to say. Prosecutors may have informal relationships with them or their supervisors since they rely on police to collect evidence in other cases. There’s a lot stacked against it.’”

Data on federal prosecutions suggests officials at the Justice Department is increasingly intolerant of abuses. The Justice Department has filed 30 Section 242 cases for deprivation of rights under color of law in the past nine months, spokeswoman Cynthia Magnuson said. Of 48 defendants charged in those cases, 45 have been convicted through either guilty pleas or trials.

‘“Generally speaking, the civil rights division is committed to the vigorous enforcement of every federal criminal civil rights statute, such as those laws that prohibit the willful use of excessive force or other acts of misconduct by law enforcement officers,’” Magnuson said.

The case against the second defendant in the Claros-Castro case, Ronald Parker, raises the stakes and will test local attitudes about immigrants and law enforcement. District Attorney Garry Frank, who is trying the case, acknowledged he is aware of the potential for bias.

‘“We would hope that the jurors would be fair and impartial, and follow the court’s instructions,’” he said, adding that he has no reluctance to prosecute law enforcement officers in cases where the evidence points to guilt.

‘“I wouldn’t want to say it’s an arbitrarily picked priority,’” he said. ‘“I would say that that’s what being a district attorney is all about: seeking justice on the cases that come to you, and calling them as you see them.’”

Some of the circumstances of Claros-Castro’s death seem clear; others remain situated in the murky territory between institutional practices and personal decisions made in the heat of the moment.

From the time he was arrested by the Thomasville Police Department on charges of impaired driving and speeding to when he stopped breathing at the Davidson County Jail, Claros-Castro seemed to be storm-tossed by personal turmoil.

In the early morning hours of Jan. 6 he got in a car and struck a cinder block wall on Liberty Drive, tearing through two flowerbeds, according to a police report. Then he left the scene and got in the car of a friend who was passing by. The two were soon arrested, hauled before a magistrate in Lexington and turned over to the county jail.

Six hours later Claros-Castro was clearly agitated about his confinement.

An officer’s use-of-force report indicates that the inmate had disobeyed orders to keep his clothes on. As a result of his lack of cooperation, Claros-Castro was put in a restraint chair some time around 7:30 a.m., according to a copy of the report released by the jail in which officers’ names are blacked out.

‘“After speaking to inmate Claros-Castro about the situation he refused to go back in N-Pod,’” the report reads. An anonymous officer ‘“then handcuffed inmate and he was escorted to the restraint chair. After removing inmate from the chair at approximately 11 a.m., I advised [an anonymous officer] to place inmate in [cell] 33 on lockdown. He had urinated in the shower in N-Pod and other inmates were upset. After placing inmate in [cell] 33 he again removed his pants and stood in his cell.’”

More than nine hours later Claros-Castro was dead. Two separate autopsies found that the inmate died from multiple injuries, including blunt trauma to the head and asphyxiation. Both ruled his death a homicide.

At some point the uncooperative inmate seems to have gotten his hands on a mop handle, and the jailers wanted to take it away from him. Summers, the lawyer, recounted some of the details leading up to the inmate’s death.

Huie shot Claros-Castro three or four times with a Taser, an electroshock gun used to by law enforcement agents to subdue human targets, and then pepper sprayed him in the face, Summers said. Then the sheriff’s deputy went into the inmate’s locked cell and got into a struggle that resulted in his beating Claros-Castro with an Asp baton.

‘“I think it was blow with the butt of it that was the death blow,’” Summers said. ‘“Why did Huie go into a locked cell when Castro could only hurt himself with a mop handle? During that process when Huie basically had Castro under control, Parker comes in and joins in and escalates the attack. Why did he do that? There will be testimony that Parker hit Castro eight to ten times. Parker could have stopped the attack but instead he escalated the attack.’”

Walt Jones, Parker’s lawyer in Greensboro, did not return calls for this story. Neither did Richard Ramsey and Carl Parrish, the two Winston-Salem lawyers who represented Huie.

Davidson County Jail was no stranger to staffing problems, controversy or even death before Claros-Castro met his violent end there.

Sheriff David Grice told YES! Weekly in January that the jail should have had an emergency response unit of five or six officers available to handle emotionally disturbed inmates such as Claros-Castro. Because of a high rate of staff turnover the emergency response unit was not in place on the Saturday evening when Claros-Castro was killed. Grice did not make himself available for this story to comment on whether a new emergency response unit is being put in place.

Other inmates have also died in custody, though not under the same circumstances as Claros-Castro.

As previously reported in YES! Weekly, inmate Distalee Meade Hernandez, 46, died of pneumonia in June 2005. Grice said a 54-year-old man who had cocaine in his system also died in the jail’s custody the same summer. And Saure Ortez Turner died of an apparent suicide in September 2002, according to a News & Record report.

Before Grice got the job the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office was headed by Gerald Hege, who ended a career as a flamboyant and aggressive lawman by resigning in May 2004 after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice. Hege’s jail was similarly troubled by allegations of brutality.

Frank has said his office has investigated several death-in-custody cases, including at four county jails and three state penitentiaries in his jurisdiction. Never before has he won a prosecution against a law enforcement officer charged with taking the life of an inmate.

Shortly after Claros-Castro’s death the FBI announced plans to investigate. At the time FBI spokesman Ken Lucas said the agency was only interested in allegations of excessive force, and would not examine institutional problems at the jail. Representatives of the FBI did not respond to requests for comment on the current status of the investigation.

Summers is compiling evidence of a pattern of abuse at the Davidson County Jail that he plans to turn over to the Justice Department.

‘“I am about to ratchet up my pressure on that,’” he said. ‘“It is my understanding that the civil rights division of the Justice Department in Washington is pursuing a question of whether there’s a civil right violation.’”

That’s exactly what happened in 2004 to correctional officers at the Wilson County Jail in Tennessee. In a case prosecuted by the civil rights division, a federal grand jury indicted five officers at the jail outside of Nashville on charges of civil rights conspiracy and depriving inmates of their civil rights, among others.

‘“The defendants routinely subjected jail inmates to excessive force and often denied them medical care for injuries suffered in these assaults,’” the civil rights division complaint alleges.

The Justice Department found that an inmate named Walter Kuntz, who had been drinking, was beaten to death by correctional officers at the jail in January 2003 because he would not keep quiet. Other inmates, the prosecutors allege, were beaten while they were restrained or being compliant, as punishment for earlier confrontations with officers or other inmates.

Gary Hale, one of the officers who the Justice Department found delivered blows to Kuntz’s head and failed to get the inmate medical treatment when he started vomiting and lapsed into unconsciousness, was sentenced to nine years imprisonment by a federal judge on June 16.

Spokeswoman Cynthia Magnuson said the Justice Department would not comment on the existence of any possible investigation into civil rights violations related to Claros-Castro’s case.

The Justice Department under President Bush has stepped up prosecution of official misconduct since taking control of the executive branch from President Clinton, Magnuson indicated, citing an 11 percent increase in individuals charged in color of law cases since 2001, as compared to the previous five years, and a 30 percent increase in convictions.

In some cases the Justice Department has set its sites on reforming institutions rather than pursuing charges against individual malefactors. The 1997 Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act gives the Justice Department the power to initiate civil action against any government agency that subjects individual confined to institutions ‘“to egregious or flagrant conditions’” depriving them of their constitutional rights and causing them ‘“grievous harm.’”

Over the past five years the Justice Department has found constitutional rights violations stemming from a wide variety of factors in at least nine facilities, most of whose residents are detainees awaiting trial for their alleged crimes. The jails cut a swath through the US Mid-South, from the Baltimore City Detention Center on the Atlantic seaboard to the Santa Fe Adult Detention Center in New Mexico.

Many of the investigations spotlighted by the Justice Department found that inmates ‘“suffer harm or the risk of serious harm’” as a result of a range of problems, including inadequate provision for serious mental and physical health needs, failure to protect inmates from physical assault, inadequate suicide prevention measures, and unsanitary and unsafe environmental conditions. None of the investigations cites a case like Claros-Castro’s where an inmate was beaten to death by one or more officers; many, however, bear some likeness to the cases of Hernandez and Turner, the two inmates respectively reported to have died of pneumonia and suicide at the Davidson County Jail.

If the Justice Department’s jail and prison investigations are any indication, the Sebastian County Adult Detention Center in Fort Smith, Ark. could claim the dubious honor of being the deadliest of county lockups. A report released on May 9 found that even after two detainees died as a result of intoxication from methamphetamine and pain medication, the jail made no effort to train officers in detecting medical emergencies. Likewise, after an inmate died as a result of hypertension and diabetes in October 2002, the Justice Department found the jail made no attempt to establish procedures for identifying and caring for inmates with chronic illness.

At Le Flore County Jail, across the state line in Oklahoma, the Justice Department found ‘“credible allegations of a pattern of physical violence’” among inmates, made worse by the fact that inmates victimized by assaults often received no medical treatment.

Sixty-five miles northwest of Greensboro, the Justice Department launched an investigation of the Patrick County Jail in Virginia in December 2001, finding that inmates ‘“risk serious injury from deficiencies in the following areas: security and protection from harm, access to medical and mental health care, environmental health and safety, access to exercise, and access to the courts.’”

Big-city jails and state detention facilities have also had their share of problems.

An investigation of the Baltimore City Detention Center launched in August 2002 cited deaths by inmates who had been using cocaine and heroin, and at least five completed suicides in the six months before the Justice Department began its probe. The department found it ‘“especially troubling’” when an inmate died after collapsing in 2000 and his roommate tried for several minutes to get staff members’ attention before anyone responded.

In Memphis the Justice Department found excessive use of force to be prevalent among correctional officers, and that violence by criminal organizations such as the Gangsta Disciples and the Vice Lords took place without interference from guards. An incident in which a hearing-impaired, mentally-ill inmate was pepper sprayed while laying quietly in his cell because he did not heed a verbal order to take a shower was characterized by the Justice Department as ‘“an example of willful and wanton infliction of pain without justification.’”

In November 2003 the Justice Department informed Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee that inmates’ constitutional rights at McPherson and Grimes Correctional Units, a pair of private prisons built and operated by Wackenhut Corrections Corp., were violated through ‘“deliberate indifference towards their serious medical needs [and] inadequate protection from physical harm and sexual misconduct.’”

Summers would like to see problems at the Davidson County Jail treated with the same scrutiny and then systematically reformed.

‘“We have an abundance of evidence of illegal activity at that jail,’” he said. ‘“I think there is some racial overtone against Hispanics. I also know there are normal folks like you and me who fall victim to it. I think it’s a failed system. It’s a poor system that badly needs to be fixed.’”

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