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$1.8 Million Settlement in New Mexico Woman’s Attempted Jail Suicide

by David M. Reutter

A lawsuit that claimed insufficient suicide prevention procedures and staff training at New Mexico’s Santa Fe County Adult Detention Facility (SFCADF) resulted in a woman’s suicide attempt has been settled for $1.8 million.

When 23-year-old Nanette Romero was arrested on a minor offense and placed in the SFCADF, the jail was under a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the U.S. Department of Justice.

The MOA, entered into on November 1, 2004, required SFCADF to revise “existing suicide prevention policies relating to identification and screening of potentially suicidal inmates, appropriate housing for suicidal inmates, effective watch procedures, duration, and conditions of monitoring, suicide intervention procedures, communications regarding suicidal behavior and information needed to protect suicidal inmates.” It also provided for staff training and emergency procedures to respond to suicide attempts.

Despite the MOA’s requirements, little had changed at SDCADF when Romero entered the jail on July 17, 2006. During the medical screening process, she informed the nurse that she was undergoing methadone maintenance. The nurse, Nancy Fudge, did not recommend or provide medical treatment, and she cleared Romero for housing in general population.

The failure to provide Romero her prescribed 85 mg. of methadone per day caused her to suffer severe withdrawal symptoms the next day. She was moved to the medical area and placed under constant suicide watch. She made multiple attempts to remove an IV that provided intravenous fluids. After she passed out and was resuscitated, she cut her hands and wrists with her name badge. She began to vomit, which compromised her breathing, after she was forced to stop cutting herself.

Transport to and a brief stay at a local hospital resulted in stabilization of Romero’s medical condition. Back at SFCADF, she was placed on constant suicide watch. Romero was unhappy with this situation, and pushed to be returned to the general population.
Meanwhile, a “turf war” ensued between the director of mental health services and the nurses, who wanted Romero kept on at least a 15 minute watch, while the psychologist ordered a 30 minute watch. Dr. Russell Brown, a psychiatrist under contract with SFCADF, agreed with the nurses and overrode the psychologist.

The purported psychologist, Dr. Terri Greer, admitted during her discovery deposition in the lawsuit that “she had purchased both her masters and Ph.D. degrees from off shore diploma mills which required no classes, no attendance, [and] no course work. Her working career had largely consisted of being a beautician,” wrote the plaintiff’s attorney, Robert R. Rothstein, in an email. “At one point, one of the defense lawyers was heard to grumble: ‘the head of our mental health services was a fucking hairdresser! Only in New Mexico. What a state.’”

The conflicting orders on Romero’s cell door left the guard in confusion. As most guards do, Michael Sunds chose to take the easier route, holding to the 30 minute watch order. This resulted in Sunds allowing Romero to go to the T.V. room. She was observed to be watching television at 9:21 p.m., but when the nurses learned of the situation it was too late.

When they entered the T.V. room at 9:51 p.m., Romero was found hanging from the television cord. She was taken down and successfully resuscitated. Nonetheless, she suffered anoxic brain injury. Romero lost significant cognizant ability and is mentally retarded. She will be severely disabled for the rest of her life and must be supervised and cared for by her mother.

The $1.8 million settlement was reached on July 7, 2010. Romero and her mother, Della Sherwood, were represented by Santa Fe Attorneys Mark H. Donatelli, Robert R. Rothstein, and John C. Bienvenu. They received $761,160.79 in attorney fees and costs. See: Sherwood v. The Board of County Commissioners of Santa Fe County, USDC, D. New Mexico, Case No. cv-2009-722.

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Related legal case

Sherwood v. The Board of County Commissioners of Santa Fe County