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Jail Guards File Suit

Five jail guards, disciplined for throwing a blanket over the head of a mentally ill detainee and choking him into a coma, have sued the Santa Clara (Calf.) County Department of Correction and its two highest officials, claiming that they were unjustly scapegoated. The lawsuit, filed April 29, 1996 names as defendants DOC Director Daniel Vasquez and his top assistant, Robert Conroy. The plaintiffs are former sergeants Mitch Conner and Steve Gong, who were demoted, and three other guards who were suspended, Orin Romney, Michael Cote, and David Alves.

The suit stems from a July, 1995, incident which began shortly after 38-year-old Joseph Leitner, a manic depressive, was arrested on minor charges and delivered to the jail. In their complaint, the five guards contend that they were following "standard procedure" for handling mentally disturbed detainees. The guards forcibly restrained Leitner, wrapped his head in a blanket when he began spitting blood and twisted the blanket around his neck.

The guards then carried Leitner to the psychiatric ward and secured him face-down on a restraint table. He lay there motionless for more than five minutes before anyone noticed that he was not breathing. Leitner was left comatose and suffered severe brain damage. He is expected to require care for the rest of his life.

Two psychiatric nurses were fired and their supervisor was forced to resign over the incident. A September grand jury found no evidence of criminal wrong doing by any of the DOC employees. The county settled a lawsuit with Leitner's family for $1.7 million and banned the use of blankets under similar conditions.

The five guards contend that Vasquez and Conroy issued press releases and made statements that "wrongfully, unfairly and untruthfully" put the blame on them for Leitner's condition. As a consequence, they say their reputations have been hurt and their careers seriously injured. They also claim to have been subjected to "tremendous mental and emotional stress, anguish and humiliation." Each of the five guards seeks $1 million in punitive damages as well as compensation for lost wages and the cost of counseling.

Santa Clara County was recently featured in the July '96 issue of PLN [See: Mysterious New Syndrome Discovered]. In January, 1996, the County Board of Supervisors issued a report describing a newly discovered medical condition: Sudden In-Custody Death Syndrome. The report cited "risk factors" including "those who have just engaged in a violent struggle, sometimes while resisting arrest; who do not respond to pepper spray or pain - compliance holds; have been handcuffed while lying in a prone position, especially face-down; who are drunk or drugged, over 50 years old or overweight; and those who exhibit a period of silence."

Not mentioned as a risk factor in the report was "having a blanket thrown over the prisoner's head and twisted tightly around his neck." Perhaps that is because Leitner didn't actually "inexplicably die" in custody; he merely suffered permanent brain damage.

Sources: San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle

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