by Matt Clarke
In January 2018, Cibola County, New Mexico agreed to pay $5 million to settle a lawsuit over the death of a jail prisoner who was repeatedly denied medical treatment despite vomiting and defecating blood.
Douglas Edmisten, 50, was arrested on misdemeanor charges and booked into the Cibola County Detention Center (CCDC). Shortly after 10 p.m. on July 7, 2016, he told jailers he had severe abdominal pain and was vomiting blood. He was ignored. Other prisoners began advocating for him; one even smeared blood that Edmisten had vomited on the pod’s windows to emphasize the emergency. Lt. Gilbert Gonzales told them to return to their bunks. Finally, at 10:54 p.m., medical staff member Casey Salvador escorted Edmisten to the jail’s infirmary.
Salvador was told about Edmisten’s abdominal pain and vomiting. She even observed one episode when he threw up blood. Salvador noted he had a pulse of 144 beats per minutes, which was a very elevated heart rate. She contacted RN Michael Hildebrandt, the jail’s Health Services Authority, and informed him of Edmisten’s condition. Hildebrandt told her to return him to his pod without treatment.
Edmisten continued to vomit blood and other prisoners continued to request medical care, to no avail. At 3:35 a.m. on July 8, after having been informed that Edmisten’s “eyes were rolling back” and he was defecating blood, Salvador came to the pod. She saw that Edmisten was unable to stand or walk and was moaning in pain. He was taken to the infirmary in a wheelchair; Lt. Gonzales then contacted CCDC Director Michael Dodds.
Dodds, in turn, contacted RN Hildebrandt and asked about Edmisten’s condition. He was informed that Edmisten was “stable.” Hildebrandt then called Salvador, received an update and ordered Edmisten to be returned to his pod, again without treatment.
Shortly after 5 a.m., Edmisten’s body was found lying on the floor. He was cold and his lips were blue, and Salvador couldn’t find a pulse or signs of respiration. Lt. Gonzales called the State Police and told them Edmisten was dead. Other prisoners were removed from the pod.
Gonzales told Salvador to check Edmisten with her pulse-oximeter. When she did so at 5:26 a.m., a pulse was detected. An ambulance was summoned but it was too late. The CCDC released a statement that Edmisten died of liver failure, though a subsequent autopsy indicated his death was due to a burst blood vessel in his stomach.
Many of the events leading up to Edmisten’s death were video-recorded by cameras in the housing pod. The recordings showed Edmisten’s and other prisoners’ futile attempts to obtain medical care. They also showed the prisoners had formed a circle around him, with one cradling his head and another reading the Bible as he lay dying.
“The most shocking thing is that the inmates, many of whom were convicted criminals, had so much compassion,” said Albuquerque attorney Glenn Smith Valdez, who first represented Edmisten in his criminal case and then helped his mother file a wrongful death suit in state court that was later removed to federal court. “The jail personnel acted as if he didn’t exist. They ignored him, and they ignored the inmates begging for help.”
The jail, located in Grants, a town with fewer than 10,000 residents, closed two weeks after the lawsuit was filed. The county’s insurer settled the wrongful death case for $5 million, inclusive of attorney fees. It was the seventh multi-million dollar settlement by a New Mexico county in cases involving maltreatment of prisoners within the past five years. See: Baker v. Dodds, U.S.D.C. (D. N.M.), Case No. 1:17-cv-00900-JAP-KK.
Additional sources: Associated Press, www.usnews.com, www.washingtonpost.com, www.timesobserver.com
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Related legal case
Baker v. Dodds
|U.S.D.C. (D. N.M.), Case No. 1:17-cv-00900-JAP-KK