Sheriff's Cover-up?

Lawyer for dead inmate's kin accuses county of "intentional destruction" of key evidence

Almost two years after Sheriff Joe Arpaio cleared his detention officers of wrongdoing in the death of inmate Scott Norberg, the prospect of county employees facing criminal prosecution has been revived.

Norberg family attorney Mike Manning filed a motion on Friday charging that Maricopa County and the sheriff's office deliberately destroyed evidence in the case. Manning accuses the county of disposing of Norberg's larynx as well as the handwritten notes of a detention officer in order to protect its version of events.

County Attorney Rick Romley responded by noting that manslaughter and obstruction of justice investigations in the Norberg matter have never been closed.

"The allegations of cover-up are very serious," Romley says. "We have an ongoing investigation into the death of Norberg, and if the allegations in this motion are true, we will expand our investigation and take that very seriously."

Romley says Arpaio is upset that Romley has kept the investigations open. "I empathize," Romley tells New Times. "But if it weren't for the actions of the sheriff's office, maybe I wouldn't have had to do that."

Arpaio blasted Romley in the past when the county attorney criticized the way the sheriff's office had conducted its probe into Norberg's death, which included commingling criminal and internal affairs investigations and failing to tape witnesses whose testimony contradicted the sheriff's interpretation of events.

For that reason, Romley says, he had to keep the possibility of criminal charges open until the end of the civil lawsuit.

"I don't care how popular he [Arpaio] is, I'm going to wait until this is over and do what I think is necessary," Romley says.

In his motion, Manning asked U.S. District Judge Paul Rosenblatt to sanction the county and sheriff's office for destroying the evidence. Specifically, Manning asked the judge to prohibit the county from contesting that Norberg died from an attack by the jailers.

"[The sheriff's office] and the County knew that Scott's larynx and any contemporaneous notes created by one of the jailers who participated in the killing were crucial pieces of irreplaceable evidence," Manning writes. "But [the sheriff's office] was busy [going] about its business of knowingly misleading the Norbergs and the public about Scott's death. . . ."

After feeding the press its version, the sheriff had an incentive to make the evidence conform to his story, Manning charges.

"MCSO's and the County's solution--the only way to fortify their 'fix' was to destroy the damaging evidence which did not fit their fiction," Manning writes. "Intentional destruction of vital evidence by the County and its law enforcement agency has occurred."

Romley says he'll wait to see what evidence emerges to back up Manning's claims.

At least one detention officer is concerned about the possibility of criminal prosecution.

Martin Spidell was one of several officers who held Norberg's head in a position that prevented Norberg from breathing, according to the sheriff's own investigation of the June 1, 1996, incident. The investigation also found that when another officer noted that Norberg had turned purple, Spidell responded: "Who gives a fuck?"

Two weeks ago, Manning tried to depose Spidell in the Norberg family's $20 million civil lawsuit, but the jail guard refused to answer Manning's questions, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

"Spidell took the Fifth to everything but his name and address," Manning says.

Spidell was unavailable for comment, but his attorney, Paul Lazarus, confirms that Spidell exercised his Fifth Amendment rights.

In the days following Norberg's death, the sheriff's office repeatedly claimed that no electronic device or stranglehold had been used against Norberg. After the autopsy showed that Norberg had, indeed, been stunned dozens of times with electronic stun guns, the sheriff's office continued to insist that "there was no damage to the neck, no breakage of the neck. . . . There was nothing consistent with any choking or chokehold in the autopsy."

Manning, however, says that the autopsy had been performed by a newly certified assistant at the Medical Examiner's Office, Dr. Mary Dudley, while two or more sheriff's deputies stood watch. Dudley noticed nothing unusual about Norberg's larynx.

In a subsequent autopsy, Dr. Karen Griest, who had been hired by the Norbergs for a second analysis, found that Norberg's larynx had been fractured and that bleeding had occurred as a result of the fracture. Griest also found that Dudley had failed to note injuries to Norberg's groin, including a gouge on his penis and stun-gun burns.

"There was no doubt that Scott's injuries were not a product of any ordinary jail restraint; but rather, a full-scale beating administered by a team of assailants," Manning writes.

When Griest confronted Dudley with the damaged larynx, Dudley explained that the fracture could have occurred during her autopsy. But Manning's motion contains testimony by experts who say the bleeding in the larynx could not have occurred during the autopsy, which was performed two days after Norberg's death.

"They're saying he died of a heart attack or--you're going to love this--excited delirium, that he died of his own adrenaline, I guess," says Manning. "We're saying that he was suffocated, which is what they found originally, that he died of positional asphyxiation."

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