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Maricopa County, Phoenix Settle Lawsuit Over Mentally Ill Prisoner’s Death for $7.25 Million

by Matt Clarke

In April 2018, just weeks before a trial was scheduled to begin, the City of Phoenix, Arizona agreed to pay $250,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by the family of a mentally ill prisoner who died at the Maricopa County jail after being mocked, beaten and Tasered by guards. The county settled its part of the suit for $7 million.

When Ernest “Marty” Atencio, 44, a Gulf War veteran, was arrested by Phoenix police in December 2011, the officers knew he was mentally ill from previous encounters. His misdemeanor arrest resulted from a woman’s complaint that he had been kicking at the door of an apartment in the complex where he lived, yelled at her and made her feel scared by coming too close to her. Instead of being taken to a mental health care provider, Atencio was booked into the Maricopa County jail.

According to court documents, jail guards and medical staff knew Atencio was mentally ill but failed to seek treatment for him. Instead, the guards mocked his “word salad” and inability to comprehend instructions, and tried to have him make the worst possible booking photo so they could win a weekly contest for the jail’s “Mug Shot of the Week.”

Guard Patrick Hanlon escorted Atencio to have his clothing scanned for contraband. When asked to take off his shoes, Atencio removed his right shoe but refused to take off the left one. In response, Hanlon and guard Nicholas French began struggling with him. This allegedly led to a “jailer’s riot,” in which at least five other guards formed a “dog pile” on top of Atencio, who was punched and shocked with a Taser multiple times. At least one of the Taser shocks was near his heart.

Atencio was then handcuffed and taken to a “safe room,” where a sergeant looked on while five jailers held him down and guard Anthony Hatton struck him multiple times with his knee. Those injuries reportedly put Atencio in the hospital with serious injuries, and he was removed from life support four days later. [See: PLN, Aug. 2013, p.54].

According to an autopsy report, his death was caused by “complications of cardiac arrest in the setting of acute psychosis, law enforcement subdual, and multiple medical problems.”

Aided by Phoenix attorneys Michael C. Manning and Larry J. Wulkan, Atencio’s father, mother, three sons and estate filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city, county and jail officials, including former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit upheld the denial of qualified immunity to two police officers and two jail guards in connection with Atencio’s death. [See: PLN, Dec. 2017, p.26].

The appellate ruling paved the way for the subsequent settlements in the case. See: Atenico v. Arpaio, U.S.D.C. (D. Ariz.), Case No. 2:12-cv-02376-GMS.

During Sheriff Arpaio’s tenure, Maricopa County paid out more than $40 million over allegations of mistreatment and abuse in the county’s jail system, including large verdicts and settlements for multiple prisoner deaths. 

Additional sources:, Phoenix New Times


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Related legal case

Atencio v. Arpaio