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15 Years to Life for Jailers Who Beat Mentally Ill Prisoner to Death

by Christopher Zoukis

Three former California jail guards were convicted of second-degree murder for fatally beating a mentally ill prisoner who suffered what prosecutors called an “agonizing and painful” death. In January 2018, the three men were each sentenced to 15 years to life in state prison.

The guards, Jereh Lubrin, Matt Farris and Rafael Rodriguez, were prosecuted for beating Michael Tyree to death while he was held at the Santa Clara County Jail. [See: PLN, Aug. 2017, p.34; Jan. 2017, p.48]. Tyree, who had bipolar disorder, was attacked and killed by Lubrin, Farris and Rodriquez on August 26, 2015 while awaiting an open bed at a psychiatric facility. The guards attempted to explain injuries to Tyree’s spleen, small bowel, face, skull, liver, and front and back sides of his body as resulting from an accidental fall.

The jury thought otherwise.

Shannon Tyree wrote in a statement for the court that her brother’s death was especially painful because his paranoid delusions turned out to be not delusional at all.

“When he would tell me people were after him, including me, I would dismiss it as delusional and paranoia and tell him no one was after him,” she said. “But in the end, he was right. These three men were after him, maybe just on a whim that night, and maybe not intending to kill him, but they were after him. And he is dead.”

The evidence against the three guards included text messages, primarily sent by Farris, that referred to prisoners being “twisted up,” “sprayed,” “kicked,” “locked down,” “slapped,” and “beaten the [expletive] down.” Attorney Paula Canny, who represented the Tyree family in a civil suit that settled for $3.6 million, said the verdict and sentence should send a message.

“It’s a wake-up call for everyone, not just for the guards,” she stated. “You can’t just put mentally ill people in jail. It’s insane. Michael’s illness pales next to the systematic illness of the criminal justice system.”

Apparently the wake-up call wasn’t received at the Santa Clara County Jail. A new grievance system was implemented in the wake of Tyree’s death, and a new position to oversee the overhauled system was created. The Board of Supervisors appointed veteran officer Lt. Amy Le, recently elected as a California Correctional Peace Officers Association representative, to the position in 2016. Local attorney Sarah Marinho called the appointment “the definition of the fox guarding the henhouse.”

Retired Superior Court Judge LaDoris Cordell, who headed the reform task force, said that move by Santa Clara officials ignored one of the main recommendations from the task force: to establish an independent, civilian inspector general to oversee the county’s jail system.

“The conflict is clear – you don’t put the head of the correctional officers union in charge of a system in which inmates make complaints and grievances against correctional officers,” Cordell declared. “Once again, it’s akin to the police policing themselves. What incentive does the head of the correctional officers union have to fairly and objectively process complaints against members of the union she leads? Her position as the union head is to look out for the welfare and rights of the officers. She can’t do that and at the same time look out for the welfare and rights of the inmates who are complaining about those officers to whom she has pledged allegiance.” 


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