Death Sentence

Maricopa County jail personnel handled an unruly prisoner so harshly that he died. So what else is new?

How would you like to sit inside a federal courtroom for seven weeks watching a grainy videotape repeatedly document the final moments of your mentally ill son's life inside one of Sheriff Joe Arpaio's county jails?

What would go through your mind as you saw the jailhouse video of Arpaio's detention officers dragging your 33-year-old son -- who had the mental capacity of a 12-year-old -- across the floor as if he were a sack of garbage?

Would you be appalled to see him, with all the might his 130-pound frame could muster, resisting the jail guards' efforts to strap him into a jail "restraint chair"?

How would you react watching guards lash your son's legs into the restraint chair that Amnesty International wants banned because it has been linked to more than a dozen deaths in the United States?

Would you not be horrified to see Arpaio's officers shove his hooded head forward between his legs with his arms handcuffed behind his back for one minute and 48 agonizing seconds -- long enough to stop his breathing?

Could you suppress the anger swelling inside as you hear testimony from a nurse who thought your son was faking cardiac arrest and respiratory failure, which could be why detention officers waited more than four and a half minutes to begin CPR?

Imagine the tightness that would grip your chest as you saw the video of guards finally applying CPR to your son lying motionless on the concrete jailhouse floor.

Could you keep your composure watching Arpaio dismissively shrug his shoulders when told during his testimony that detention officers failed to follow regulations requiring that the nurse be present as guards forced your hysterical and drug-addled son into the restraint chair? (She returned later after it appeared the restrained prisoner's health was suddenly impaired.)

Watching him testify over and over that his jailers acted properly in the final chaotic moments of your son's life?

Evidence shows that your unarmed, deranged son was picked up by Phoenix police for bizarre behavior inside a convenience store and was brain-dead less than an hour after getting taken to jail.

Yet Arpaio swears under oath that his detention officers did nothing wrong.

Evidence also shows that jailers repeatedly violated procedures authorized by Arpaio himself -- regulations that are supposed to protect mentally ill and drugged-out prisoners like your son from serious injury inside the county jails.

Yet Arpaio testifies that he runs a "humane jail" and that the restraint chair is only used for "medical" reasons. He says its purpose is to protect detainees from harm.

He tells the court it is he who "sets the tone" for detention officers' treatment of the more than 150,000 people who pass through the county jails each year.

All this is happening in U.S. District Court in Phoenix in the trial of a lawsuit filed by Carol and Charles Agster, whose son is the victim in this sorry scenario.

The Agsters are seeking $25 million in damages from the county and Arpaio personally in the suit. For the past two months, the final moments of their troubled son Charles' life have been dissected in agonizing detail before Judge James A. Teilborg and a jury of six men and six women.

Closing arguments in the case are set to begin the day this column hits the streets.

Arpaio's testimony earlier this month marked a dramatic climax to the trial. The 73-year-old sheriff was grilled by Phoenix attorney Mike Manning, who is representing the Agsters.

It was a showdown between one of the most popular politicians in Arizona history, despite his harsh treatment of prisoners and legendary official gaffes (see this week's "The Bird"), and a crusading attorney who has toppled a string of corrupt titans, including infamous savings-and-loan shyster Charles H. Keating Jr. and bankrupt real estate developer and disgraced former Arizona governor J. Fife Symington III.

For three hours, Manning methodically stripped away Arpaio's faade of righteousness to reveal a scoundrel unwilling to accept responsibility for the cruel and irresponsible actions of his employees that appear to have contributed mightily to the untimely death of Charles Agster.

Appearing confused and befuddled at times on the witness stand, Arpaio abandoned his trademark boastfulness for the more subdued demeanor of a busy executive who does not have time to pay attention to the gritty details of each and every incident inside the nation's third-largest jail system.

Time and again, Arpaio said his detention officers were merely following the orders of a county Correctional Health Services nurse who directed that Agster be placed into the restraint chair moments after police dropped him off at the jail shortly before midnight on August 6, 2001.

Records submitted in the trial by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office reveal that the restraint chairs are used "thousands" of times a year in the county jail system. Inmates and detainees are frequently strapped into the chairs for up to six hours at a stretch, often before receiving legally required medical screenings, testimony in the case showed. A see-through, nylon hood is usually placed over the individual's head, the stated purpose of which is to prevent the prisoner from spitting on detention officers.

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