Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

America's Toughest Sheriff Settles for $8.25 Million in Wrongful Death Suit

In 1996 Scott Norberg was arrested for assaulting a Mesa, Arizona police officer and booked into the Maricopa County Jail, which is run by "America's Toughest Sheriff" Joe Arpaio. The next day Norberg, 35, was choked to death by deputies while strapped in a metal restraint chair. The county medical examiner's office ruled that Norberg's death was the accidental result of "positional asphyxia."

An internal investigation conducted by Arpaio's criminal and internal affairs officers concluded that jailers were justified in handcuffing Norberg, zapping him with a stun gun, gagging him with a towel and shoving his head down into his chest "for the purpose of maintaining security and control in the face of Norberg s violent outburst."

The Norberg family filed a $20 million wrongful death suit in April, 1998. The suit charged that more than a dozen jail guards participated in beating Norberg, a former Tempe High School athlete, before killing him by crushing his larynx.

The suit further alleged that county officers participated in a cover-up and the medical examiner's office destroyed evidence of a beating.

On January 7, 1999 the county and its insurance carrier paid $8.25 million to settle with the Norberg family. Arpaio called the county's insurance company "gutless" for settling the suit.

"We were looking to go to trial and tell the true story," Arpaio told the Associated Press. He said that Norberg caused his own death by thrashing about during a violent drug-induced psychosis.

But pretrial depositions obtained by the Norberg family attorney, Michael Manning, present a markedly different version of the truth. Jail guard Patricia Duran provided a sworn statement that another jailer, David Gurney, attacked Norberg without provocation and was "the cause of the whole thing."

Another jailer, Kimberly Walsh, testified that when she warned jailers who were choking Norberg that he was no longer breathing, one of them responded, "Who gives a shit?" She said Norberg's face turned purplish blue, he kicked spasmodically once, and died.

In another deposition Rab Choudry, who was a prisoner in the jail at the time, said that guards "kicked, hit, whatever they could do to inflict pain on this man." At least a half dozen other prisoners who witnessed the killing offered similar accounts, some saying flatly that guards murdered Norberg.

Forensic reports and autopsy photos obtained by Manning show massive bruises all over Scott Norberg's body as well as nearly two dozen burn marks from electric stun guns. But other key evidence, Norberg's larynx and x-rays of his skull, had disappeared from the County Medical Examiner's Office.

Manning retained Dr. Heinz Karnitschnig, former Maricopa County medical examiner, to examine the autopsy photographs. Karnitschnig said the photos showed that Norberg's larynx suffered "blunt force trauma." He sharply criticized Medical Examiner Philip Keen who he says told him that Norberg's larynx was discarded after his office had determined the cause of death as accidental.

"Having run the Medical Examiner's office for 21 years," Karnitschnig told the Arizona Republic, "I did not find Dr. Keen's explanation plausible, as I know full well that tissue samples in high profile cases such as Scott Norberg's would always be kept for several years, no matter how the office classified the matter of death."

Jack McIntyre, an Arpaio spokesperson, said that medical examiner's office staff told him that they did not know what happened to the larynx and the missing X-rays.

Two weeks after the $8.25 million settlement in the civil suit, County Attorney Rick Romley announced that his office would launch a criminal investigation.

To date no criminal charges have been filed. Arpaio, who spent 25 years as a federal narcotics agent, contends that the criminal investigation is politically motivated, the result of his long-running feud with Romley over jail funding and other issues.

Sources: Associated Press, The Arizona Republic, The Arizona Daily Star

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Case Name Unknown