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$300,000 Settlement in Lawsuit over Minnesota Prisoner’s Suicide

by Matt Clarke

In December 2018, Minnesota agreed to pay $300,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by the family of a prisoner who committed suicide while guards ignored orders to keep him under constant observation, then forged documents to cover up their lapses. 

William Roy St. John, 47, had a lengthy history of mental illness and suicidal behavior when he committed suicide at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Oak Park Heights. He was serving time for aggravated armed robbery and had started his sentence on April 12, 2012. While at Oak Park Heights he had frequently expressed suicidal ideations and had multiple serious suicide attempts, including one on August 13, 2015 when he was housed in the Administrative Control Unit (ACU) – a super-max segregation part of the 450-bed maximum-security prison. 

His last suicide threat was sent to prison staff on November 11, 2015, triggered by his fear that he would soon be transferred back to the ACU. Clinical Program Therapist Lindsey Jennelle received the note threatening suicide on November 13, 2015, but ignored it.

Due to his mental health history, St. John was housed in a mental health unit on continuing observation status with a continuing observation order (COO) in place. At the time of his death, the order required that he be held in an observable cell or room with continuous observation by staff, direct observation of medication, physical observation every 30 minutes and logging of observed behavior every 15 minutes. 

On November 14, 2015, guard Tendeh Brownell released St. John from his cell via remote control to allow him a 30-minute exercise period. The COO required that St. John be kept under direct physical observation when outside his cell. Guards Matthew Elmore and Ian Sinclair failed to do so. Instead of exercising, St. John went to the shower, where there were no surveillance cameras. 

Brownell made false entries in the log book showing he had St. John under observation. When the 30 minutes for exercise were up and St. John did not respond to Brownell’s orders over the intercom to return to his cell, a search was conducted. Sinclair saw a towel covering the observation window for the shower and, when he looked inside, discovered St. John’s body hanging from a ligature attached to a security grate over a light fixture. St. John was taken to a hospital but died the next day when removed from life support. 

Aided by Minneapolis attorney Frederick J. Goetz, St. John’s son and three brothers filed a federal civil rights action with pendent state tort claims against Brownell, Elmore, Sinclair, Jennelle and the state. On December 13, 2018, the federal magistrate judge issued a report and recommendation concerning the disbursement of a $300,000 settlement reached by the parties. St. John’s son and one brother, Jeffery LaCroix, who was appointed by the court to act as trustee in the case, received about $60,924 each. The other two brothers received $35,474.50 each. Also included in the settlement were $100,000 in attorney fees and $7,203.85 in costs.

“He was a father, a brother, a grandfather, an uncle, a friend, but most importantly he was a human being,” said LaCroix. “We hope because of his death laws are being changed within the prison system [to keep this] from happening to other inmates, so other families won’t have to suffer as we did.” 

The settlement agreement was finalized and approved by the district court in January 2019. See: LaCroix v. Brownell, U.S.D.C. (D. Minn.), Case No. 0:18-cv-02448-PJS-SER. 


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Related legal case

LaCroix v. Brownell