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.

In Agster's case, Arpaio testified that the Correctional Health Services nurse -- even though she is a county employee -- was not under his direct control. He claimed it was her decision to require guards to take action.

"You're not telling the jury, are you, that if a nurse says to the detention officers, 'I want this sick inmate chaired,' they will chair that inmate no matter what?" Manning asked Arpaio.

Arpaio answered that he was indeed.

Manning then pointed out to Arpaio that allowing the nurse to independently make a decision to "chair" a detainee known to be mentally ill and under the influence of dangerous drugs violates the sheriff's office's written policies and procedures.

Arpaio disagreed, again claiming it is the MCSO's policy to allow a Correctional Health Services nurse to make such a decision.

"Their main mission is to protect the inmate, and I'm going to say again that we take direction from the medical expert, which in this case was the nurse," Arpaio testified.

Manning asked Arpaio whether there was written agreement between the sheriff's office and Correctional Health Services giving CHS the authority to order a person to be involuntarily strapped into a restraint chair.

"I don't know," Arpaio replied.

What about a verbal agreement, Manning asked.

"I don't know," Arpaio testified.

Arpaio did not know because there is no evidence of a formal agreement delegating such decision-making authority to CHS.

A few minutes later, Manning introduced a sheriff's office document that demonstrated detention officers also failed to obey a written policy requiring that mentally ill detainees be examined by a member of the jail's psychiatric staff before placement in a restraint chair.

Arpaio testified that the nurse -- who is not a member of the psychiatric staff -- can override the sheriff's office's written procedures on the proper handling of mentally ill detainees.

Even though no evidence exists of an agreement granting such authority to the nurse!

Manning deftly demonstrated that America's toughest sheriff was hiding under the skirt of a nurse by cowardly blaming her in the death of a mentally ill prisoner under the influence of drugs.

Arpaio's attorneys argued that Agster died from ingesting methamphetamine and several other drugs, and that detention officers acted reasonably and properly. They point to the county medical examiner's report that finally concluded Agster's methamphetamine level was sufficient to have produced cardiac arrhythmia.

They naturally downplayed the medical examiner's initially listing the cause of Agster's death as positional asphyxia and drug ingestion. The county ME only dropped suffocation resulting from the forced placement in the restraint chair as a contributing cause of death after meeting with Arpaio's attorneys, which is fishy.

Charles Agster clearly was a very troubled man who had ingested dangerous drugs on the night he was taken to jail. His elderly parents were taking him to the hospital for treatment when he asked to stop at a convenience store.

Once inside the market, Agster began acting strangely, and police were called to remove him. Police literally hog-tied Agster with handcuffs and straps before delivering him to the jail.

A video shows Arpaio's jailers dragging Agster across the floor of the receiving area on his stomach. Moments later, Agster is seen being forced into the restraint chair (again, this was absent any legally required medical and psychiatric evaluation). These were his final desperate moments of consciousness.

I believe there is a very good chance Agster would have survived the night if he had not been forcibly placed into the restraint chair -- an action that he fought with all his strength, just as most of us would have done under similar circumstances.

I have no idea if the jury will agree with my assessment, but there is no doubt that Arpaio's 14 years of leadership have spawned a culture in the jails where human rights are mostly ignored.

This is not Singapore. Taking illegal drugs in America does not condemn a detainee to the death penalty -- although in Arpaio's jails a suspect incarcerated for reputedly being under the influence of drugs or booze is treated worse than a sober cold-blooded murderer.

Also, let's say for a moment that the nurse does have the ultimate responsibility for whether to put an inmate in the restraint chair (even though evidence shows that no such agreement has ever been struck by Arpaio). What a dumb and callous policy, particularly when the nurse is not even present when the detainee is strapped in. And particularly since the nurse obviously is not a psychiatrist or psychologist.

There is little doubt that the nurse is partly at fault here, but aren't jail conditions the ultimate responsibility of the county sheriff? Aren't the people he and the county hire to work in the jail, whether from another county agency or not, his responsibility?

And I'm not even getting into whether the sheriff should be stocking the medieval restraint chairs in question in this case, which has many parallels to the infamous county jail death by asphyxiation of Scott Norberg ("Jail Suits Could Cost County Taxpayers Tens of Millions," January 23, 1997).

Many of us are way past being disgusted and offended by Arpaio. His heinous actions and gloating demeanor are well documented in hundreds of thousands of words written in New Times over the years.

What I cannot understand is how a majority of my fellow voters can think that even minuscule criminal activity deserves the harshest treatment inside the jails. These citizens keep electing Arpaio because they believe that, no matter what atrocity he condones, he's doing a great job.

I can only hope that the jury in the Agster case will see the sheriff for the cruel administrator he is and give the victim's parents a very large financial award. My pipe dream is that Arpaio's dismal administration will become so expensive that taxpayers will vote him out in 2008.

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