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Police, Death and Inquests

David Urban, 35 years old, was serving a 30-day sentence in the Winnebago County Jail in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, when, at 1:00 pm on January 13, he began complaining to guards that he felt ill and needed medical attention. The sheriff's deputies who run the jail thought Urban was faking. Twenty hours later Urban died of a heart attack.

AI wish someone would have believed him, [*] said Urban's girlfriend, Vanessa Miller, afterwards. Urban phoned Miller several times during the afternoon and evening of January 13. Miller testified before an inquest jury that Urban told her, in a call at about 11:00 pm, that he felt like his chest was caving in. In another call Urban was screaming, saying I feel like I'm dying. All they've done is take my blood pressure and pulse. Patty Strassen, a clerk at the jail, testified that on his last afternoon alive Urban was vomiting, grabbing his stomach and chest and talking to himself, saying My God, I'm sick. Someone help me. Yet jail personnel failed to summon adequate medical attention and Urban was declared dead the next morning.

There is nothing unusual in all this. Anyone who's done time in jail or prison in this country knows that the standard response to inmates who complain of illness is to ignore them. Imagine being locked in a cell, feeling your chest caving in, pleading for medical attention, and having the deputies tell you to shut up. David Urban lived that horror, and died in horror.

Make no mistake, the police killed David Urban. Because he was locked in a jail cell, Urban was deprived of any ability to obtain medical attention on his own. By ignoring Urban's cries for help as he died, the Winnebago County sheriff's deputies murdered Urban as surely as if they'd shot him in the head.

In spite of these shocking facts, the inquest jury decided that none of the deputies should face criminal charges. There is nothing unusual in that either. Law enforcement personnel are almost never held responsible for prisoner deaths, regardless the circumstances. The inquest procedure is one big reason why.

District attorneys say the reason they order inquest proceedings in cases where police cause a death is to determine whether any criminal wrongdoing took place. Funny thing, DA's rarely find it necessary to rely on inquest Juries to determine whether so-called street criminals should be prosecuted. For most people suspected of crimes, DA's decide by themselves whether to press charges.

The real reason district attorneys call for inquests when police kill is to insulate the cops from criminal liability. DA's protect killer cops because having police mad at them makes it harder for DA's to prosecute the more stereotypical criminals. At the same time, DA's have to stand before the voters for re-election, so they don't want to take the heat for brazenly covering up police crimes.

When police kill someone the DA calls for an inquest, does a half-hearted job of presenting the case against the cops, and lets the jury decide. If the inquest jury says the cops shouldn't be charged, everyone's happy, except the many victims. The cops get off scot-free and the DA can deflect criticism, saying it was the jury's decision to let the cops walk. If the inquest jury finds that the police broke the law, the real duplicity of the inquest procedure shines through. The decisions of inquest juries are advisory, not binding. DA's don't have to follow them. A district attorney can ultimately decide not to file charges anyway.

A bill now before the Wisconsin state Senate would make the killing of a police officer punishable by execution. Yet, when police kill citizens, the legal system oozes with excuses why the police should not be punished at all. The inquest procedure is a major component in this obscene double standard. It must be abandoned. When law enforcement personnel are involved in deaths, district attorneys should do the job they were elected for. Let the DA's decide up or down whether the police should be prosecuted, just as they do with other criminals. And let the DA's suffer the consequences on election day if they cover for killer cops. No more hiding behind the legal sham of an inquest jury to protect murderous police.

* All the quotes and facts are taken from Jury says inmate's death not caused by criminal act, by Chris Nelson, Milwaukee Sentinel, February 9, 1995, p. 6A.

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