Civil rights trial over Oklahoma inmate death nears end

AP News
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Posted: Mar 17, 2017 2:45 PM

TULSA, Okla. (AP) — A jury soon will decide whether a man's civil rights were violated when his last hours alive were spent lying on the floor of an Oklahoma jail with a broken neck.

Attorneys for the estate of Elliott Williams say jail and medical staff in Tulsa failed to provide medical care as 37-year-old Williams languished in his cell for five days, complaining he couldn't move.

Both sides rested their cases Thursday after more than two weeks of testimony.

Central to the case is a condensed video that shows the last 51 hours of Williams' life as he lies paralyzed in the cell as jail staff throw food on the floor and place a cup of water out of his reach. Firefighters are shown rendering CPR and then pronouncing him dead.

A medical examiner determined that Williams died of complications from a broken neck and dehydration.

The case comes amid a national discussion about whether jails are equipped to handle inmates in mental distress.

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ARREST AND DEATH

Relatives said in October 2011 that they took Williams to a hotel in the Tulsa suburb of Owasso to rest after he and his wife split up. They said he was having psychological issues and caused a disturbance in the lobby, and police responded.

Officers called a local mental treatment facility but waved off the request when Williams became uncooperative and walked toward an officer in what police said was a threatening manner. Williams was booked into the Owasso jail on Oct. 22 on a misdemeanor obstruction complaint. Authorities said he thrashed and screamed and took off his clothes, and was later taken to the larger Tulsa jail.

In Tulsa, Williams rammed his head against the bars of his cell. He told medical staff that he had a broken neck and couldn't move. When he was eventually transferred to a cell in the medical unit more than 10 hours later, he still constantly complained that he couldn't feel his legs. One nurse scolded him at one point and told him to stop faking his injuries, according to the lawsuit.

He died five days later, lying naked on the floor.

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THE CASE

The lawsuit names Sheriff Vic Regalado and Stanley Glanz, the former sheriff who resigned in 2015 after being charged in an unrelated case.

Glanz testified that Williams wasn't given a mental assessment because he was "acting up," The Tulsa World reported. Glanz said he didn't have a problem with skipping the evaluation because of Williams' behavior, despite arresting officers reporting that Williams was suicidal. Glanz said Williams wasn't on suicide watch, which requires constant supervision, but that jail staff could observe him at all times.

Dan Smolen, an attorney for the Williams estate, said previous audits showed the jail had deficiencies in providing medical care but failed to address them.

Casey Roebuck, a spokeswoman for the sheriff's office, declined to comment on the case, citing pending litigation.

Jurors will determine whetherjailers and officials acted indifferently and inhumanely while Williams was in custody. The lawsuit is seeking more than $150,000 in actual and punitive damages.

Williams' estate reached an undisclosed settlement with a contracted medical provider before the civil trial began, the World reported.

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WHAT'S AT STAKE

Tulsa police reform activist Marq Lewis said Williams's death is representative of a bigger problem regarding how jails treat inmates. His group, We the People Oklahoma, has called for the creation of a citizen advisory board independent of the sheriff's office that could review complaints from jail workers and inmates.

"This egregious type of death has not only occurred in Tulsa County but in counties throughout the country," Lewis said. "This (case) is six years in the making, and these are the warnings that reform needed to happen."

Williams' case comes amid discussions on how inmates with mental illness are treated inside jails and whether these facilities have the resources to properly diagnose and treat them.

"Jails, by default, have become pretty much the largest mental institution in the U.S., even though they don't have enough resources to handle the volume of people who have mental health issues," said Johnny Nhan, associate professor of criminal justice at Texas Christian University.