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Jail Detainee Dies after Altercation with Deputies at Arizona Jail

A man who was assaulted by deputies after being booked into the Maricopa County Jail in Phoenix, Arizona died after being taken off life support.

Ernest "Marty" Atencio, 44, was a divorced Army veteran with three sons aged 15, 16 and 21. He was working in his family's real estate business and did not have a serious criminal record.

Atencio was arrested and booked into the jail on an assault charge on December 16, 2011. According to the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MCSO), he became combative while at the downtown Fourth Avenue jail and was placed naked in a "safe cell." Fifteen minutes later he was found unresponsive.

Atencio was transported to a hospital where, on December 21, he was taken off life support after his family was told he had no brain activity. There were no signs that he had consumed drugs or alcohol, but his body was bruised and had marks from a stun gun resulting from his altercation with jail deputies.

Phoenix attorney Michael Manning, who has won five wrongful death lawsuits against the MCSO, was retained to represent Atencio's family in a wrongful death suit filed on October 23, 2012. He stated Atencio had suffered from known mental health problems and may have stopped taking his medication.

"[Atencio's family] said he was a good father and a good employee, that he was not someone that was in trouble often," said Manning.

"They knew he was mentally ill," he added, referring to the jail staff. "He was just sick. He was never aggressive. He was never resisting. He was not combative.... Detention officers with MCSO beat him with closed fists, kicked him in the face, back and groin, and tased him too close to his heart."

In February 2013, Atencio's family rejected a $550,000 offer from the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors to settle their wrongful death suit, which was removed to federal court and remains pending. See: Atencio v. Arpaio, U.S.D.C. (D. Ariz.), Case No. 2:12-cv-02376-PGR.

Numerous prisoners have suffered preventable injuries and deaths in Maricopa County's jails, resulting in over $40 million in settlements and jury awards. [See, e.g.: PLN, July 2012, p.47; Dec. 2010, p.47; Oct. 2009, p.32].

Atencio's death occurred one week after the U.S. Department of Justice released a report finding the MCSO had committed a wide range of civil rights violations against Latinos, including racial profiling and heavy-handed immigration patrols. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio countered that the Justice Department's findings were politically motivated by the Obama administration.

On August 31, 2012, the Department of Justice announced it would not file criminal charges against Arpaio or other sheriff's office employees following an investigation into the MCSO's anti-public corruption squad.

"After careful review, we do not believe the allegations presented to us are prosecutable as crimes," wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Ann Birmingham Scheel.

Sources: Associated Press,,

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Related legal case

Atencio v. Arpaio