Death of Inmate the Focus of Federal Wrongful Death Suit Against Stearns County

July 07, 2017 09:26 AM

The death of an inmate captured on a camera by a jail officer in Stearns County will be the key evidence in a federal wrongful death lawsuit against the county.

The case is scheduled to go to trial soon.

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The lawyer for Stearns County believes a jury will find no wrongdoing.

His family lost the first federal lawsuit in Minneapolis. A judge ruled for the county. 

Jerome Harrell's lawyer appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis. The federal appeals court overruled the judge in Minneapolis and sent the case back. 

Now a new judge and jury will hear this case in a few months - five years after Harrell died. The jury will have to decide whether officers neglected him, and if that neglect lead to his death.

Jason Hiveley, the lawyer for Stearns County, declined to comment on camera for this story. But he did issue a statement to KSTP.

"The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of most of Plaintiff's claims finding the force used to extract Harrell from his cell was reasonable and not excessive and the subsequent rescue efforts were appropriate despite his sudden and unexpected death," the statement read.

"At the upcoming trial, the jury will be asked to decide whether the care provided to Harrell during the hours before his extraction was also appropriate. Since the evidence is clear it was, we believe the jury will dismiss the rest of this case."   

The lawyer for Jerome Harrell and his family, Kenneth Udoibok, said jail officers were deliberately indifferent to his client and contributed to this death. 

Harrell was an aspiring model and actor. He was taking classes at the Minneapolis Technical Community College and wanted to serve in the military.

But a traffic warrant stood in his way. He walked into the Stearns County Jail in 2012. He never walked out. 

The most compelling evidence in the trial may be a video an officer shot for training, and to officially document the incident. It shows Harrell going out of his mind for hours.  

"Banging his head on the cell," Udoibok said. "He's' bouncing off the walls. He's naked. He's screaming."

Udoibok said Harrell didn't have to die on that night in February of 2012.

A year earlier, Minneapolis police issued Harrell a citation for not having proof of insurance. He forgot all about the citation until he decided to join the military in 2012. He went to Stearns County Jail to settle the traffic warrant for the citation.

Stearns County Jail officers placed him a cell and he began a descent into madness.

"Based on medical experts, Jerome developed Excited Delirium Symptoms (EDS)," Udoibok said.

Those experts - hired by Udoibok - testified people often get EDS in jail cells. The condition can cause hallucinations, anxiety and extreme swings in body temperature.

It can even make the heart stop beating.

"From 7:45 p.m. through 6:30 a.m., Jerome was seen by Stearns County officers," Udoibok said.

Intake officers who first saw Harrell wrote he "appeared to be high on drugs" and had "special needs."  

That's the information night shift officers had about Harrell as they started their routine jail rounds. They documented his erratic behavior in jail logs throughout the night.

Officer Mary Armstrong wrote that she saw Harrell "start moving his body as though he was an animal."

She also said she was was trained to identify EDS. The night shift officers say they told their supervisor about Harrell, but never called the nurse on duty.

"They did absolutely nothing," Udoibok said.

Armstrong said Harrell's "behavior is quite common" in the jail. While officers cannot respond to every single inmate with an issue, Udoibok said  they should have at least called a nurse to observe.

Armstrong said she saw no medical crisis.

When Udoibok asked Armstrong in a deposition "So it was just indifference? Go ahead and scream all you want?" Armstrong answered "It's just another day at the job."

The hours passed by until the shift changed. A day shift supervisor made the call to enter the cell so a nurse could assess Harrell. Court documents show that she and her officers were told by the night shift that "the inmate was making loud noises that resembled a monkey literally bouncing off the walls."

Six extraction officers dressed in riot gear entered Harrell's cell. They were following jail protocol. They found Harrell had tied a sheet around his neck. He was handcuffed and lying on the floor.

One officer sat on his body. Another dragged his body and cut off the sheet around his neck.

"His hands are crunching right there," one of the officers said.  

Udoibok said: "It's obvious Jerome is struggling. He's between life and death."

Officers tried to find Harrell's pulse.

"Can't get a pulse - real shallow respiration," one officer can be heard saying on the video.

"Is he breathing? ... Officer, he's not breathing, faint pulse," said two other officers on the video.

It was another four minutes before officers started CPR.

In a deposition, an officer told Udoibok it was jail protocol not to administer CPR in a jail cell even if a person is dying.

Officers couldn't save Harrell. The Ramsey County Medical Examiner found he died from "sudden unexpected death during restraint."

Udoibok also hired a medical examiner from Arizona. He found Harrell's death a "homicide," and said Harrell suffocated.

First responders did take Harrell to the hospital. An autopsy showed he had a negligible amount of marijuana in his blood. 

Credits

Farrah Fazal

Copyright 2017 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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