Testifying on the opening day of a wrongful-death trial, a forensic pathologist Monday challenged the findings of the Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office in the case of an inmate who died in 2006 after deputies subdued him using five-point restraints at Orleans Parish Prison — a controversial practice the jail has since stopped.
The pathologist, Dr. Douglas Posey Jr., conducted a second-look autopsy on inmate Kerry Washington. He said he could not determine a cause of death, saying his investigation was incomplete because he lacked access to “the crime scene.”
But he called into question the conclusions of Coroner Frank Minyard’s staff, saying the four causes of death listed — cardiac arrhythmia, respiratory insufficiency, excited delirium and “death during restraint” — failed to explain why Washington stopped breathing as officials sought to begin a psychiatric evaluation.
“It is my medical opinion that everyone who dies has an abnormal heart beat,” said Posey, a former associate medical examiner with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, referring derisively to the listing of cardiac arrhythmia as a cause of death.
Posey’s testimony highlighted the first day of a bench trial before Civil District Court Judge Tiffany G. Chase, who will determine whether Washington’s family should receive compensation for his death.
Washington’s widow, Cheryl, filed suit against Sheriff Marlin Gusman and two deputies she blames for her husband’s demise, claiming jail officials also gave her the run-around for days and led her to believe Washington had been released from jail when, in fact, he had been dead for more than two weeks.
“At the time of his death, Mr. Washington was 39 years of age and in good physical condition, with no significant health problems,” Baton Rouge attorney Jill Craft wrote in the 2007 lawsuit.
Posey, an expert called by Washington’s family, was similarly dismissive of the coroner’s report of “excited delirium,” saying this is the first case he’s encountered in which that condition was cited when the decedent had not ingested cocaine. “Excited delirium” often is described as an overdose of adrenaline that has been associated with cocaine use, but critics challenge its legitimacy as a diagnosis and have suggested it’s used too often to explain in-custody deaths involving police force.
“Something else must have occurred that led to Kerry Washington dying in restraints,” Posey added, “when not everyone (placed) in restraints dies.”
Gusman’s attorneys are expected to call Dr. Samantha Huber, the Coroner’s Office pathologist who conducted Washington’s autopsy, when the trial resumes Tuesday.
At the time of Washington’s death, the Sheriff’s Office had no written protocols to dictate when inmates should be placed in five-point restraints, which immobilize a person’s arms, legs and chest. The office no longer uses them, according to testimony, but a spokesman for Gusman declined to say when or why the practice was abandoned.
The restraints were cited in another controversial inmate death, in 2009, when 43-year-old Cayne Miceli reportedly died after spending several hours strapped down by the restraints. Critics of the long-troubled jail have said Miceli’s death epitomized the chaotic and unconstitutional conditions that last year led a federal judge — prompted by a class-action lawsuit — to order a sweeping reform of conditions at the lockup. Gusman is required to rewrite scores of policies and significantly boost staffing to protect inmates from rampant violence at OPP.
Washington’s case highlighted the lack of control deputies have had for years on the jail’s tiers, which are often dangerously understaffed. He had been booked in April 2006 on a warrant for failing to appear in court on a misdemeanor charge and was being held at the notorious House of Detention, a jail facility that has since been shuttered.
Deputies found him outside his cell in a fight with other inmates — one of whom apparently nearly lost a finger in the fracas. “They had him jammed up against a television stand,” Lt. Dwayne Washington, who is not related to the plaintiffs, testified Monday. He added there was “a lot of blood.”
In depositions, deputies seemed unsurprised by the notion of inmates roaming about, saying it was well known that prisoners could easily “pop open” the doors with, for example, a toothbrush.
After breaking up the fight and determining Kerry Washington had broken jail rules, deputies escorted him to a disciplinary tier, where another scuffle ensued and Washington allegedly grabbed feces out of a toilet and smeared them onto a jailer seeking to detain him.
Dwayne Washington said that, based on the inmate’s “erratic” behavior,” the decision was made to take him to the 10th floor for a psychiatric evaluation.
After the inmate resisted a nurse’s efforts to check his vital signs, officials placed him on a bed with the restraining belts. “He was trying to kick,” said Dwayne Washington, one of the defendants in the lawsuit, who assisted in strapping down the inmate’s legs.
“He was still putting up a struggle, and at some point he just kind of stopped,” the lieutenant testified. “At some point, somebody said he wasn’t breathing.”
Craft, the plaintiffs’ attorney, suggested jail officials improperly restrained Kerry Washington at a time when his resistance made such restraints dangerous. Jail personnel said the order to restrain him was justified because he posed a threat to himself.
More deputies are expected to testify Tuesday, as well as W. Lloyd Grafton, a use-of-force expert who reviewed the case and, according to court documents, concluded Kerry Washington was deprived of his constitutional rights during his brief time at OPP.