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Texas Grand Jury Rules Jail Guards Not Negligent in Prisoner’s Death

Despite a finding of homicide by the Dallas County Medical Examiner, an Angelina County grand jury ruled that jail guards involved in physically subduing a prisoner were not negligent in causing his death.

In November 2008, Thomas Joseph Kirksey, 28, died while in the custody of the Angelina County Jail. He had been ar-rested earlier that evening and was under the influence of Phencyclidine (PCP), a hallucinogenic. Jail officials described Kirksey’s behavior as combative; they said the drug’s influence made him difficult to restrain.

“He was delusional .... And he was extremely powerful in his resistance,” said Sgt. Pete Maskunas, the Texas Ranger who investigated the case. “He literally lifts four officers off his body while being restrained in the restraint chair.” Kirksey, who was 5’11” and weighed 300 lb., reportedly was Tasered by jail staff, too.

Maskunas stated that as the effects of the drug appeared to wear off, Kirksey became calm and was subsequently taken to a less restrictive area to “alleviate some of the symptoms associated with PCP.” During his fifteen hours in jail, Kirksey was moved from the restraint chair to a padded room and eventually to a holding cell.

“They got him in [the holding cell] and left him in there a while. Then he became psychotic again. They could see he was going to hurt himself and they felt their only other option was to put him in the padded cell,” said Maskunas.

This last decision proved fatal for Kirksey, who never had a chance to hurt himself as guards entered the cell and piled on top of him. According to Maskunas, it became “imperative to restrain him with the force of their bodies .... They held him there for a period of time until he quit fighting.”

The coroner’s report indicated they also held him there until he quit breathing, permanently. In other words, in an at-tempt to save Kirksey from himself, the guards ended up killing him. Maskunas insisted “there is evidence that showed that [the jail staff] were acknowledging and giving verbal direction to let him breathe.”

But acknowledgments and directions weren’t enough, and at 5:10 p.m. on November 10, 2008, Kirksey was pronounced dead at a local hospital. The Dallas County Medical Examiner determined his death was due to restraint asphyxia, also known as positional asphyxia, which is when a person is suffocated as the result of physical restraint that deprives them of the ability to breathe. The asphyxia was complicated by Kirksey’s other conditions, including heart dis-ease, obesity, stress and being under the influence of PCP.

Addressing the Medical Examiner’s finding of homicide as Kirksey’s cause of death, Maskunas explained that “If an offense had been committed, the death of a person caused by someone’s negligence is considered criminally negligent homicide in the state of Texas.”

Yet despite documented evidence that numerous jail guards engaged in physical restraint that resulted in Kirksey’s death by suffocation, in April 2009 the Angelina County grand jury decided the guards were not negligent in causing his death.

District Attorney Clyde Herrington, who sent the case to the grand jury, said he had never anticipated an indictment. Kirksey is survived by his wife, Natassha, and three daughters, ages 6, 7 and 8. “He was a good person,” said Natassha. “He was just under the influence at the time.”

Sources: Lufkin Daily News,

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