Washington: Teen’s Death in Tribal Jail Sparks Lawsuit, Contract Scrutiny
On January 9, 2017, Seattle attorneys Edwin Budge and Erik Heipt said they plan to file a federal lawsuit on behalf of the family of a teenager who died after warning jailers he had a heart condition and had previously required resuscitation. Although 19-year-old Andrew Westling wasn’t a tribal member, when he was arrested on April 10, 2016, police in the city of Yelm took him to the Nisqually Corrections Center – a tribal jail in nearby Thurston County. There, after telling a guard he felt like his heart was “thumping out of his skin,” he was found dead roughly 24 hours after being booked into the facility.
A Thurston County coroner listed the cause of Westling’s death as “cardiac dysrhythmia due to congenital coronary artery heart anomalies,” and described the manner of death as natural. However, according to a medical specialist retained by attorneys representing Westling’s family, his heart condition was “familiar, readily recognized, and easily treatable.” University of Washington medical professor Richard Cummins added, “If it were not for the unreasonable neglect of the staff of the Nisqually Corrections Center, Andrew Westling would be alive today and would very likely enjoy a normal life span.”
The lawsuit will name the city of Yelm, but because the Nisqually tribe is a sovereign nation it has immunity against federal lawsuits. According to Budge and Heipt, the tribe’s contract with Yelm and other non-tribal entities is unique. Former state Attorney General Rob McKenna concluded that Washington law allows for contracts only between cities and counties for jail services, not with native tribes or reservations. Westling’s estate will ask the court to declare the jail contract illegal.
“It may, in and of itself, violate the constitution to bring a U.S. pretrial detainee into a tribal jail,” Heipt said, “without assurances that the constitutional protections ... do apply.”