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$35,000 Settlement Paid by California County After Jail Death of Elderly, Mentally Ill Detainee

by Benjamin Tschirhart

California’s San Luis Obispo County reached a settlement on February 10, 2021, agreeing to pay $35,000 to resolve wrongful death claims filed by the widow of an elderly man with dementia and mental illness who died of an embolism in the county jail on November 6, 2017, three weeks after his arrest for allegedly stabbing his wife in a Morro Bay RV park.

When police arrived at the scene, Margot Hammer told them that her husband, 62-year-old Russell Hammer, was physically and mentally ill. She requested that he not be arrested but placed on a mental health hold. Yet Hammer, who had no criminal record, was booked into the county lockup even after a hospital physician diagnosed Hammer with dementia and psychosis.

After that, things didn’t go any better for Hammer. At his arraignment, public defender Patricia Ashbaugh did not inform the court of his illness and neglected to request bail reduction or supervised release. In fact, when the prosecutor requested a no-contact order with Hammer’s wife of 25 years, Ashbaugh did not even object.

Court records recalled that Hammer developed his physical and mental issues after contracting Parkinson’s disease in 2012. He had called police on himself after the altercation with his wife, realizing what he had done. While his ailments were obvious enough for police to take him to the hospital the night of his arrest, he was still booked into jail even after being positively diagnosed with mental health problems.

After spending several days in the lockup, he was taken to the San Luis Obispo public health facility for another two days, but this was not enough to stabilize him “in any meaningful way,” according to his wife’s attorney, Paula Canny.

On behalf of her client, Canny filed suit in state superior court for San Luis Obispo County against the county, its sheriff’s department, the public defender’s office, the department of public health and the Sierra Vista regional medical center, as well as individuals working for all of them, alleging wrongful death, negligence, malpractice, and civil rights violations.

Hammer was the 12th prisoner to die in the jail since 2012. Several of the other surviving families were also represented by Canny, who noted that Hammer’s death came on the heels of announced reforms at the county jail to improve mental health care.

“San Luis Obispo County told the general public that the problems have been corrected when San Luis Obispo County knew they had not,” Canny said.

As the sheriff’s department, jail and health department were allegedly failing Hammer, those responsible for advocating on his behalf in the public defender’s office also seemed to let him down. After Ashbaugh appeared to fumble his arraignment, fellow public defender Ronald Crawford made no objection when prosecutors filed an amended complaint on November 18, 2017, nor did the attorney attempt to have his client released from jail. Moreover, no one from the public defender’s office visited Hammer after this date for the last nine days of his life.

Until his death on November 27, 2017, jail guards also allegedly ignored Hammer as he pleaded for help, neglecting to give him his prescribed medication. They placed him in solitary confinement, took away his clothing and withheld food and water, subjecting him to an extended period of physical and psychological torture, according to the complaint Canny filed, which also called the medical treatment he received at the jail inadequate. Doctors ultimately failed to note cellulitis on Hammer’s leg, which produced a blood clot that killed him the next day.

The justice system that failed Hammer and caused his death ended up writing a check for just $35,000, also penning another tragic chapter in the story of America’s criminalization of mental illness and poverty. Had Hammer been wealthy, or had he lived in a country whose jails do not end up treating the majority of those who are mentally ill, it is quite possible that he would have remained alive. See: Benson-Hammer v. San Luis Obispo Cty., Cal. Super. (San Luis Obispo Cty.), Case No. 18CV-0681.  

Additional sources: KSBY, CalCoastNews

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Related legal case

Benson-Hammer v. San Luis Obispo Cty.