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Oklahoma Jail Sued for Mocking Prisoner as He Died

by Dale Chappell

Surveillance video released in January 2020 from the Ottawa County Jail in Miami, Oklahoma, provides graphic evidence of the neglect and abuse suffered by detainee Terral Ellis at the hands of jail staff in the days leading up to his death from septic shock and pneumonia in October 2015. The new video and audio evidence corroborated details provided to an attorney for Ellis’ family by at least 16 former prisoners who were in jail at the time he died and agreed to testify on his behalf.

“It’s a horrific, horrific death,” said Dan Smolen, an attorney specializing in jail death cases who is representing the Ellis family. “It’s jarring.”

Smolen filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the Ellis family in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma in 2017 against the county, the sheriff’s office and the jail’s nurse contractor. See: Burke, et al v. Ottowa County, U.S.N.C. (N.D. Okla), Case No. 17-cv-00325-JED-FHM.

Using descriptions from Ellis’ fellow inmates written two days after his death, the suit lays out its gruesome details.

On October 10, 2015, the 26-year-old Ellis took his grandfather’s advice and turned himself in to the jail on an outstanding warrant for an old DUI. He wanted to get his life on track and be an example to his toddler son. But twelve days later Ellis was dead, after jailers repeatedly mocked and ignored his pleas for help as he died.

Ellis entered the jail a strong, healthy man, but a few days later video captured by the jail’s surveillance system showed him bedridden, with his cellmates having to take care of him. Medical staff had diagnosed him with a “displaced rib” and told him to stay in bed.

“I literally had to hand-feed and water him,” wrote Michael Harrington, one of Ellis’ cellmates, in testimony to the court filings. “It got so bad that I had to give him cups to urinate in and then dump them out for him.”

Harrington wrote that Ellis said to him, “They’re not going to help me, are they? I think I’m going to die.”

But before he did, Ellis got worse. He had a seizure, but staff accused him of faking it. When paramedics arrived, jail staff told them not to transport Ellis unless his condition was life-threatening. EMS did not fully evaluate Ellis before they left him at the jail because staff promised to monitor him closely.

When Ellis began begging for help, staff locked him in an isolation cell for some “cool-down time.” The cell reportedly had no sink, no toilet and no bed. Jail staff was supposed to check on him every 15 minutes, but the newly released video showed that they did not — contradicting official jail log reports to the contrary.

Early on the morning October 22, 2015, video showed Ellis asking staff for water. Detention Officer Johnny Bray refused, telling Ellis to get it himself. Ellis begged staff not to leave him.

“My legs! Please! Please don’t go anywhere,” he yelled. “Please dude. Wait, dude. I can’t believe y’all are doing this! Help! Help! Help! Somebody help!”

Staff ignored him. When jail contract nurse Theresa Horn arrived at work later that morning, Ellis begged her to look at his legs. They were turning “black” and mottling, an early sign of sepsis.

“I think I’m dying,” Ellis said.

Horn put in her report that she checked on Ellis, but video evidence showed that she wasn’t even at work when she supposedly checked on him, the complaint says.

“I’m sick and tired of f--king dealing with your ass,” Horn allegedly yelled at Ellis. “There ain’t nothing wrong with you!”

Those would be some of the last words Ellis heard before he died. Not only did the jail’s surveillance system capture video, but it also recorded audio, and all of the recordings of Ellis’ pleas for help were filed with his lawsuit in court. So were all of staff’s comments mocking him over the hundreds of hours of video and audio obtained by Smolen.

Horn can be heard on the video suggesting that Ellis died by suicide. The medical examiner determined that he died from septic shock, though it was also noted that Ellis had “a bedsheet tied loosely around his neck” that had left no marks.

“If you don’t have (the recordings), this is just some kid who died in jail because he got sick,” Smolen said. “I want people to understand this is happening, every day, all day long, in jails across the United States.”

While the county admitted that jail guards and the nurse didn’t follow department policy, its attorneys argued that Smolen “cannot show that any delay or denial of medical care was caused by any policy, practice or custom of the Ottawa County Jail,” and they asked to be dismissed.

Former Sheriff Terry Durborow, who was in office at the time of Ellis’ death, directly blamed the nurse in his recorded deposition.

“She refused to even go back in there and check on the guy,” he said. “She refused to do her job.”

Horn’s lawyer called her lack of care to Ellis an “inadvertent failure to provide adequate medical care” that “does not in itself amount to a constitutional violation.”

The Ellis lawsuit is still pending. 



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