"Deschutes County has paid what appears to be the largest settlement or verdict against a governmental entity for jail abuse, neglect or death ever in Oregon,” said attorney Jennifer Coughlin, referring to the $1,025,000 settlement she accepted in January 2017 on behalf of the family of a prisoner who was mocked by guards as he lay dying in a jail cell.
As previously reported in PLN, at 4:30 p.m. on December 14, 2014, 31-year-old Edwin Mays III was arrested in Bend, Oregon for heroin possession, providing false information to the police and other charges. Arresting officers believed Mays was under the influence of a stimulant because he was agitated, his fingers were twitching and he could not stand still. When being booked into the Deschutes County Adult Jail, his behavior was so erratic that guards could not take a booking photo.
Mays was locked in a holding cell at 5:37 p.m. “Look at Mays,” guard Joseph Toman reportedly stated. “He cannot sit still. I wonder if I should put him somewhere else.” Instead, guards moved his jailed brother, Adam Davenport, into the holding cell with him. Davenport told the guards his brother was sick and needed to go to a hospital. They ignored him.
At 6:11 p.m., guard Jesse Hurley terminated the booking process, commenting that Mays was under the influence of something. “That guy is jacked up,” Hurley declared. “He’s doing the zombie.” Guard Amanda Parks was seen on surveillance video laughing as Hurley mocked the erratic head, arm and hand motions that Mays was making in the holding cell.
A short time later, Hurley told guard David Chambers that Mays needed Narcan, a medication to counter narcotic overdoses. Yet no Narcan or other medical treatment was provided.
As Mays continued to thrash around the holding cell, slamming into the cell door with his body, five guards huddled around the booking area television watching an NFL game.
Hurley and Sergeant Ted Morris finally opened the cell at 8:23 p.m. The video showed Mays lying unresponsive on the cell floor, his breathing shallow and slow. Hurley and Morris called out to him, but when he did not respond they left him bleeding and convulsing on the floor. Several other guards walked past but did not stop to help.
When Morris and Chambers opened the cell door again at 8:55 p.m., Mays was no longer breathing. This finally prompted the guards to call an ambulance, but Mays never recovered. An autopsy found his cause of death was “methamphetamine toxicity.” [See: PLN, Nov. 2015, p.63].
Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel asked the Oregon Department of Justice (DOJ) to conduct an independent investigation. The DOJ ultimately declined to bring criminal charges because they could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that any of the guards had committed a crime.
Even so, four guards were disciplined while two supervisors were demoted. Deschutes County Sheriff’s Counsel Darryl Nakahira claimed that Oregon public records laws prohibited disclosure of the nature of the discipline imposed on the guards.
“The Department of Justice devoted 14 months and hundreds of hours into the investigation of the unfortunate death of Edwin Mays. I commend the Attorney General and her staff for their professional and thorough investigation,” wrote Hummel. “I support the decision by the DOJ to not initiate criminal charges. At the same time, I understand the pain family members are experiencing as a result of this decision and I sympathize with them. To see video of your loved one in his final hours of life being mocked by government employees while in obvious distress must be particularly painful.”
The incident prompted several changes at the jail. “A sober assessment of the facts indicates that on the night Ed Mays died mistakes were made and professionalism was lacking,” Hummel stated. “Things needed to improve at the jail and Sheriff [L. Shane] Nelson made the changes necessary to right the ship.”
Those changes included adding full-time nursing staff at the facility; asking a local emergency room physician to review jail policies and procedures; purchasing AliveLock heart rate and oxygen saturation wrist bands for prisoners who need to be medically monitored; adding additional external defibrillators and upgrading the jail’s emergency bags; adding naloxone, an antidote for opioid overdoses, to kits for patrol and jail deputies; and adding a medical/mental health section at the jail to increase capacity and improve monitoring of at-risk prisoners.
Represented by Jennifer Coughlin and Michelle R. Burrows, Mays’ estate and family filed a $16.6 million federal civil rights suit against Deschutes County, its former sheriff, former jail commander, current sheriff and nine guards in 2015.
“I think the lesson learned is that police officers don’t get to decide who lives and who dies in their custody,” said Coughlin. “Every person who is incarcerated in this country has a constitutional right to get medical attention when they need it.”
The county announced the January 2017 settlement in a brief statement, acknowledging that it would pay $1,025,000 but claiming “this agreement is not an acknowledgement of liability or wrongdoing – a fact confirmed by the Oregon Department of Justice’s investigation and also by the terms of the settlement agreement which provides that the county and the individual defendants expressly deny responsibility for the unfortunate death of Mr. Mays.”
Coughlin and the Mays family saw things much differently.
“Deschutes County is unfortunately being dishonest in saying that they have no fault in this matter; and the truth is that if they had no fault they would not be paying over a million dollars to settle this lawsuit,” Coughlin observed. “They are saying that the Department of Justice exonerated these officers; but that’s disingenuous. The Department of Justice decided not to impose criminal charges against these officers. That in no way means that the officers did not violate this inmate’s civil rights and fail to provide him proper medical care.”
Coughlin remained hopeful despite the county’s lack of remorse. “My hope is that correctional officers have learned that it is a much wiser use of taxpayer dollars to simply take inmates who are in medical distress to the hospital rather than allow them to die in custody and pay out big settlements or verdicts,” she said. “The Mays family hopes that in having to pay over $1 million for this young man’s suffering and death, it will bring attention to other cases of abuse and neglect by law enforcement officers.” See: Mays v. Deschutes County, U.S.D.C. (D. Ore.), Case No. 6:15-cv-00898-AA.
Sources: www.ktvz.com, www.oregonlive.com, www.opb.org, Deschutes County DA media release
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Related legal case
Mays v. Deschutes County
|U.S.D.C. (D. Ore.), Case No. 6:15-cv-00898-AA