Overdose, Taser and Restraint Chair Combine to Kill Washington Prisoner
Authorities in Washington State have said no charges will be filed in the death of a 33-year-old diabetic prisoner at the Spokane County Jail, even though his death was ruled a homicide after he was tased twice and placed in a restraint chair as he was suffering from extremely high blood sugar and a methamphetamine overdose.
Spokane County prosecutor Steve Tucker said even though “homicide” was listed as the cause of death for Christopher Parker, that determination does not by itself establish criminal intent or liability.
“A combination of everything is why [Parker] passed away,” Tucker stated. “The tasering didn’t kill him. The restraint didn’t kill him. It’s only in combination with the meth.”
Tucker’s February 21, 2014 decision not to prosecute came three days before the one-year anniversary of Parker’s death in a holding cell at the jail. Video surveillance showed Parker had wrestled with sheriff’s deputies as they attempted to place him in the cell; when deputies forced his head into his lap to secure him in a restraint chair, he lost consciousness and went into cardiac arrest. Officials said he died within minutes.
Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecutor Jack Driscoll issued a statement in late February 2014 that exonerated jail guards and medical personnel of any fault in Parker’s death. “Unfortunately, Mr. Parker died, but not from any act that would be criminal in nature,” he concluded. “There is no evidence to support a finding of criminal negligence or unlawful intent.”
Early in the morning on February 24, 2013, Parker, fearing he had overdosed on meth, called 911. According to the transcript of the call, he was hallucinating and confused. He couldn’t tell the 911 operator where he was; he said he needed an ambulance but didn’t say where to send it. He told her he was seeing things, that people were chasing him and trying to kill him.
“I did too much meth or something,” he said. “I don’t know what I did. I’m scared.”
After patiently talking to him for 20 minutes, the operator determined Parker’s location and dispatched an ambulance and police. He was examined by emergency medical technicians (EMTs), who found no reason to send him to a hospital.
“They did evaluate him for possible ingestion of an unknown substance,” said Assistant Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer. “I know the paramedics who evaluated him didn’t feel as if he had signs or symptoms that required urgent transport to the hospital.” At that point Parker was turned over to the police on an outstanding warrant.
He was taken to the Spokane County Jail, where nurse Kerrie Fernlund examined him and found his blood sugar level was extremely high at 416 mg/dL, making his blood akin to “maple syrup.” Fernlund tried to get Parker to take insulin but he refused. Officials said the jail customarily transports prisoners to the hospital when their blood sugar level exceeds 400 mg/dL, but stressed the policy was informal.
“Jail Nurse Fernlund[’s] actions were not a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would exercise in the same situation,” Driscoll wrote in his statement, adding, “While jail protocol calls for someone to not be accepted whose blood glucose reading is greater than 400, the failure to do so does not rise to the level of criminal negligence.”
When jail guards discovered Parker had stopped breathing after they tased him twice and restrained him, the jail made a series of botched calls in an effort to summon an ambulance. The first call was made by a jail employee who reported a possible drug overdose but could not say whether Parker was awake and alert.
American Medical Response (AMR) dispatched an ambulance to the jail as a non-emergency, one not requiring lights or a siren. In fact, records show, it took five minutes for the crew just to get on the road.
After more than 10 minutes had passed with no ambulance, the jail called a second time. An angry AMR dispatcher again asked for details about Parker.
“You can’t even tell me whether they were conscious and alert, or [give me] an age,” the dispatcher said sharply. “I asked you that information, you said you didn’t have it. Do you have that information now?”
“Well,” the caller from the jail replied, “it’s an unconscious male, 30 years of age, possible O.D.”
“Unconscious male makes a big difference,” the dispatcher said.
Schaeffer acknowledged that first responders had “very vague and very limited” information about Parker’s condition. “It was very chaotic,” he said, but noted that a quicker response time by the ambulance would not have made a difference because jail nurses were already trying to revive Parker. When the AMR crew finally arrived to take over resuscitation efforts, Parker was already dead.
“Looking through the retrospective glasses it’s easy to say yes,” Parker should have been taken to a hospital after he was first examined, Schaeffer admitted, though he warned against second-guessing the EMTs.
“I don’t know what the dialogue was. If someone says they don’t want to go to the hospital and they are not exhibiting symptoms or signs,” Schaeffer said, adding, “We will not make excuses. If there is something here where we made a clinical judgment that was wrong ... we will own it and make it better.”
Adding insult to injury, jail officials did not notify Parker’s family that he had died, but instead posted on the jail’s website that he had been released due to “death.”
“I’m mad!” exclaimed Parker’s mother, Christina Higgins. “There is no reason why they did not notify us. No reason whatsoever.”
Authorities could not explain why the jail failed to notify Parker’s family of his death, but quickly deleted the online notation.
“When we learned about the posting under Mr. Parker’s name on our website, we took steps to remove it and make sure this does not happen again,” said Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich.
Parker’s death led to reforms at the jail. Schaeffer announced new policies that require any arrestee who has ingested an unknown substance to be taken to a hospital for evaluation. He said he also clarified with jail staff what information needs to be provided in 911 calls, and fire crews are now required to accompany all medical calls dispatched to the jail.
“We’re taking the opportunity to actually improve the system,” Schaeffer stated.
Sources: TheSpokesman-Review, www.inlander.com
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