Assisted Suicide

A county psychiatrist's indifferent treatment of a disturbed inmate leads to a courthouse hanging

But other sixth-floor staffers did visit Cervantes over the next nine days, including jail nurse Rand Antokal.

Fewer than three days before he killed himself, Cervantes told Antokal he was having trouble coping. Antokal noted on Cervantes' chart that he was "holding it together, voices telling him to hurt self, stated he needed to talk."

Antokal had given Cervantes paper and a pencil, and suggested he write to Shannon Sintic.

Dr. Joseph Franzetti in deposition, May 11, 2004.
Dr. Joseph Franzetti in deposition, May 11, 2004.

"After writing letter, inmate feels more calm, decreased anxiety," the nurse's note concluded.

The next day, May 13, jail counselor Marlena Lopez noted that Cervantes "wants to keep a positive attitude throughout, even though he's in jail. States he has been writing to his wife. Looks less depressed, socializes appropriately and contracts for safety. There is no danger-to-self behavior."

Lopez later testified that she'd drawn those conclusions from a short interaction at Cervantes' cell.

Shannon Sintic says she visited her boyfriend five times during the 10 days he was in the psych unit.

He tried to keep a stiff upper lip on the night before he killed himself, she says, asking after the children and about the day-to-day aspects of her life.

But Sintic also was worried about the underlying sadness that permeated their last conversation.

"He never mentioned suicide to me," she says, "but he said he just couldn't see himself spending a lot of time in prison because he hated it so much. I told him I'd see him in court the next day, that me and the kids loved him."

After he died, jail officials found a letter that Cervantes had scribbled to Sintic, probably the night before he died.

"I just got done scrubbing the flore in my cell with a toothbrush," Cervantes wrote. "They turned the lights in hear, so can't realy see what I'm doing. I want so bad to end the Hell. I think soon I will . . . I know this is not what you want to hear, but as long as you know, yes, I realy missed you and my babys. If this is what it takes to prove my love to and for you well then, so be it . . . There are just so many ways I can do this."

In a deposition last year, Sheriff's Lieutenant Scott Frye described how deputies would take inmates to court hearings.

Frye said detention officers routinely picked up prisoners about 6:30 a.m. and took them to the Main Jail, adjacent to the courthouse complex.

Steve Cervantes had a hearing in his assault case scheduled for 8:30 a.m. that May 14, on the seventh floor of the central court building.

Because Cervantes was in the psychiatric unit, sheriff's deputies at the courthouse isolated him from the other inmates in the eighth-floor holding cell.

But the hearing was way behind schedule. Handcuffed and shackled, Cervantes sat alone in the cramped space as the hours passed.

Later that morning, his public defender came by the cell: The prosecutor in the assault case had delivered his plea-bargain offer, and it was a tough one -- 10 years at the Arizona Department of Corrections. Probation wasn't an option.

What followed was exactly what the National Commission on Correctional Health Care warns jail authorities to look out for with suicidal inmates:

"While inmates may become suicidal at any point during their stay," the commission wrote a few years ago, "high-risk periods include: after adjudication, when the inmate is returned to a facility from court; [and] following the receipt of bad news regarding self or family."

Cervantes already had baggage -- previous suicide attempts, drug abuse, deep depression. Now he was staring at a long prison sentence and a painful separation from his family.

The commission also has warned that "a suicidal inmate should not be housed or left alone. An appropriate level of observation must be maintained. . . . The inmate should not be isolated."

But Maricopa County authorities did just that with Steve Cervantes.

They isolated Cervantes and ignored him when he started screaming for help before he killed himself.

"A person on suicide watch requires constant supervision," sheriff's lieutenant Frye admitted in his deposition. "They are required to be watched at least every 15 minutes. With the way our courts are set up, we have a number of inmates who will go to the same court. We wouldn't have the ability to have constant observation of that person."

The policy of the sheriff's office is actually: "DO NOT LEAVE ALONE" any inmate on suicide watch.

And department policy also requires officers to observe even inmates who aren't on suicide watch at least once every half an hour.

But Dr. Franzetti had failed to alert the courthouse jailers about the inmate's suicidal tendencies -- even if he hadn't said he wanted to harm himself over the previous day or two.

In fact, the shrink testified in his deposition that he hadn't even known Cervantes had gone to court that day. That flies in the face of Franzetti's final notation in his patient's chart: "Inmate out to court."

Deputy Fausto said in his deposition that he'd returned to the seventh floor after locking Cervantes in the cell one floor above him.

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