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Arizona's Pima County Settles Prisoner Beating Death Lawsuits for $500,000

Arizona's Pima County Settles Prisoner Beating Death
Lawsuits for $500,000

by Matthew T. Clarke

By paying $500,000 and issuing letters of apology from the Sheriff, Pima County has settled two lawsuits by the survivors of two prisoners beaten to death by Pima County Jail guards in two separate incidents. This brought the total paid in recent settlements involving prisoner beatings to $596,000. The county also spent $12,000 for outside investigation of the cases. 12 of the 38 claims filed against the county for deaths or injuries at the county jail during the past 5 years were closed without payout, another 17 remain open.

Police found Karl Budinger, a 74-year-old former logger and Alaska state OSHA representative, asleep behind the wheel of his pickup truck parked in a Tucson apartment complex on Christmas Day, 2001. He was verbally abusive to the police who found him, kicked one paramedic in the knee and another in the groin, and refused to be handcuffed at the scene.

According to guards John Tollett and Christopher Gates, Budinger yelled repeatedly at guards and raised his hands in a manner perceived to be a threat to guard Marie Mitchell, causing them to use force against him. However, prisoner witnesses say Budinger made no threatening move, yet Tollett threw him into a low-hanging cabinet, then Mitchell pinned his head to the ground with her knee. What is certain is that the guards managed to break Budinger's neck, then ignored his screams of pain and protests that he was paralyzed as they dragged him in to a cell and threw him onto the floor. Jail nurse Raela Burns gave Budinger a 45-second examination, pronounced, "He'll live," and left. The prisoners assigned to clean up the blood in the hallway left from the beating say no one checked on Budinger for another 90 minutes, when he was discovered dead.

The Pima County Attorney's Office cleared the guards of any wrongdoing and no administrative review was undertaken.

On January 14, 2002, Douglas J. Carter, 40, was arrested for a misdemeanor liquor warrant and arrived at the jail just before midnight. There he faced Tolett, Mitchell and guard Don Guariello. The guard's claim that Carter threatened to fight other prisoners in the holding cell if he wasn't taken to a single cell, then refused to obey the orders of guards who were taking him to the isolation cell. What is certain is that the guards beat Carter so severely, they broke three of his ribs, badly bruised his entire torso, and ruptured his spleen. They then handcuffed the fatally-injured Carter to the four corners of a bunk and left him without medical attention for hours.

Jail nurse Georgia Foster did get a look at Carter and suspected broken ribs, but she was untrained in how to handle serious injuries, didn't know what to do, and left him for the day staffers.

"I thought that he really needed to be seen by a doctor," said Foster. "I was amazed at the amount of blood everywhere. It was on the floor, on the bench, all over his face. I mean it looked like somebody had taken a bucket of red paint and splashed him with it."

At 7:00 a.m., the day shift found Carter unable to stand, so they got him a wheelchair to take him to his video court appearance. They then took him for X-rays, where be collapsed at about 11:00 a.m. Carter was admitted into Kino Community Hospital at 7:00 p.m. However, complications due to diabetes, pancreatitis, liver cirrhosis, and a rare blood characteristic caused doctors there to delay his surgery until 8:00 p.m. the next day while they searched for compatible blood. Carter died a few minutes after midnight.

"If this whole process was started earlier, he could have been repaired and gone on with his life," according to Dev Sethi, the Carter family's attorney. "Because of all the delays at the jail, he didn't get the necessary treatment until it was too late."

Sheriff's Sgt. Michael G. O'Connor is not so sure. He said that the delays are being investigated, and the fact that jail personnel didn't know how to handle a seriously injured prisoner was a cause for concern, but the beating caused the death.

"It wouldn't have mattered what the nursing staff could have done with Mr. Carter had the corrections officers not assaulted him as they did that morning," said O'Connor. "Our primary focus is the officers."

Indeed, the officers in question, Tollett and Guarriello, were indicted for negligent homicide on May 24, 2002. But this is too little, too late according to Sethi.

"They've continued to leave people in there who have short tempers, people who like abusing power under the cloak of their badge," said Sethi. "They've left powder kegs in there in the forms of Tollett and Guarriello."

It is hard to argue with that conclusion when you consider the dozens of complaints lodged against jail personnel by prisoners who said they were beaten without provocation, then denied medical attention while being strapped to beds for hours and ignored when they complained about their mistreatment. Indeed all of the guards involved in the beating had long histories of complaints against them for excessive force. Mitchell was cleared in the 10 excessive force complaints filed against her in the past 5 years. Likewise, Tollett was cleared in 6 other cases, and Guarriello in 4_even though a jail nurse had filed one of them, complaining about excessive force use on a prisoner.

When complaints arose, the guards simply lied and the internal investigation accepted the lies. For instance, the aforementioned nurse said that Guard Andrea Doty was hitting a prisoner multiple times in the middle of the back while two other guards hit him in the side and head. Doty claimed she was in the restroom when the incident occurred. No one was disciplined.

There are other guards with histories of excessive force. In 2000, there were 53 complaints for use of excessive force; in 2001, there were 85; in the first five months of 2002, there were 35.

Former guard Coe Emmett resigned in lieu of being fired on September 3, 2002, after being charged on August 19, 2002, with 2 counts of misdemeanor assault stemming from beatings of different prisoners on July 26 and 27, 2002. The first beating followed Emmett's threat to make a 19-year old prisoner's life a living hell. Emmett claimed the prisoner attacked him. Another guard said it was an unprovoked beating.

Patricia Hartman, 44, a mental health educator at the University of Arizona's Department of Family and Community Medicine, has a $500,000 federal lawsuit pending against the county and guards who she claims beat her without provocation on Christmas Day, 2000. She admits to having screamed all night and wriggled out of one handcuff after being arrested on a domestic violence charge. However, she did not provoke the guards to beat her.

"There was no spitting at them, no biting at my wrists, no banging my head on the wall or anything like what they said. They have to say something to justify what they did," said.

Hartmann says the deep cut on her head was cause by guards banging her head against a metal bed they strapped her to after slamming her on the floor. When she complained, she says they twisted her ankle. She has been unable to work due to post-traumatic stress caused by the beating. That the guards were exonerated in an internal investigation is an indication of the need for external oversight of the jail.

"When the investigation was done, I got two paragraphs that said they were exonerated," says Hartman. "That was the end of the story. That's why they got away with it."

Bobby Montgomery, 46, filed a state lawsuit alleging guards caused two bone fractures, neck dislocation, and permanent arm and side paralysis in a January 2000, beating.

Tollett and Guarriello were fired in June, 2002. Mitchell was never charged in the beatings and was transferred to the jail's minimum security unit. Burns resigned in lieu of being fired February 22, 2002.

July 12, 2002, the Budinger family attorney, Clague Van Slyke III, gave notice of a $13 million claim against the county for negligence and constitutional rights violations. Sethi gave notice of an $l0 million claim for similar reasons on June 21, 2002. On September 9, 2002, the county settled the Carter claim for $350,000 and an apology. On October 15, 2002, the county settled the Budinger claim for $150,000 and an apology. In each written apology, the Sheriff assured the families that steps had been taken to ensure that no such incident could happen again. The families' attorneys said that improving the jail to prevent a recurrence was more important to the families than seeking a large award.

Source: Arizona Daily Star

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