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$500,000 Settlement in Maryland Prisoner’s Death from Pepper Spraying

by David M. Reutter

A half-million dollar settlement was paid to the family of a Maryland prisoner who died when prison officials used excessive pepper spray while extracting him from his cell, and then failed to provide medical care.

After state prisoner Ifeanyi A. Iko was involved in a violent altercation with his cellmate on April 28, 2004 at Maryland’s Western Correctional Institution, Iko was taken to an isolation cell. Concerned with his behavior and refusal to speak in English, Lt. James Shreve asked the prison’s psychology staff to visit Iko.

His erratic behavior continued over the next two days, which led psychologist Janet Hendershot to recommend that Iko be transferred to Special Observation Housing. When he refused to “cuff up” to be escorted to that housing unit, the security chief and warden authorized an extraction team to use force.

The cell extraction was videotaped. It showed Iko lying passively on the cell floor, ignoring requests to cuff up. Lt. Shreve then “doused” Iko with pepper spray three times through the cell door slot for a total of “nine to fourteen seconds.”

At no time “during the spraying did Iko respond violently or in a confrontational manner.” As he lay prone on the floor, the seven-man extraction team “secured Iko’s arms in metal handcuffs behind his back and his legs in shackles, and placed a spit mask over his head.”

He was then taken to a nearby medical room, where a nurse said it did not appear he was suffering ill effects from the pepper spray. After about a minute, Iko collapsed and was placed in a wheelchair. Without being provided medical care or decontaminated, he was wheeled to an observation cell. Guards applied forceful pressure to hold him on the floor while flex cuffs were applied.

For the next hour and a half, Iko remained on his stomach without moving; guards refused to allow medical staff into the cell due to his alleged “dangerousness.” When medical personnel were finally permitted to check on him, Iko was dead. A medical examiner ruled his death a homicide, finding he had “died of asphyxia ... caused by chemical irritation of the airways by pepper spray, facial mask placement, compressional and positional mechanisms.” [See: PLN, Aug. 2005, p.1].

Iko’s estate filed suit in federal court, which on September 17, 2007 denied the defendant prison officials’ motion for summary judgment in part and granted it in part. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals said it lacked jurisdiction over whether the guards’ application of pressure constituted excessive force, because the district court had denied summary judgment on that claim on the sole ground that issues of material fact remained.

However, the Fourth Circuit ruled on the defendants’ qualified immunity defense, affirming the denial of summary judgment “to Lt. Shreve regarding the amount of pepper spray used against Iko and to the officers regarding their deliberate indifference to Iko’s medical needs.” See: Iko v. Shreve, 535 F.3d 225 (4th Cir. 2008).

Following remand, the parties agreed to settle the case for $500,000. The January 29, 2009 stipulation of settlement provided that $200,000 would be allocated to attorney’s fees and $55,985.24 to expenses. The remaining $244,014.76 was split among the estate’s administrator and Iko’s three children.

Iko’s estate was represented by attorneys from the Washington, D.C. law firms of Roetzel & Andress LPA and Nossaman, O’Connor & Hannan LLP. See: Iko v. Galley, U.S.D.C. (D. MD), Case No. 8:04-cv-03731-DKC.

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