Juan Mendoza Farias' death came at a particularly inconvenient time for Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The date — December 5, 2007 — fell in the middle of a nine-month window during which two attorneys had court-ordered access to jail records, as part of a federal civil rights lawsuit.
But even those attorneys had a difficult time securing any of Farias' records. They did ultimately get them, about one week after New Times secured a limited portion of the same records from the county medical examiner.
"We've had a terrible problem with them claiming records don't exist, that they have no way to find the records. These are very basic things we're looking for. It's been a major problem," said Peggy Winter, an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorney from Washington, D.C.
Winter was in Phoenix representing pretrial inmates in the class-action lawsuit, Hart v. Arpaio, which held closing arguments on September 4. Now, attorneys from the county, the Sheriff's Office, and the ACLU are awaiting a ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Neil Wake.
Of the more than 2,500 jail-related lawsuits filed against Arpaio, Hart v. Arpaio may be the most crucial because it addresses the civil rights of all inmates awaiting trial ("Inmates' Rights Lawsuit Languishes," John Dickerson, December 20, 2007). It has the potential to affect conditions in Arpaio's jail.
Isolated deaths — like Farias' — are but one indication that there may be a systematic violation of constitutional rights in Arpaio's jails. That's what Winter and Phoenix attorney Debra Hill, of the firm Osborn Maledon, both argued in court.
Winter and Hill offered testimony from national experts and jail inmates, all claiming that Arpaio's jails violate a number of constitutional rights, including the right to medical and mental care. They also argued the jails are overcrowded and inhumane.
The testimony included the story of inmate "A.H.," a mentally ill man who was beaten by other inmates and later died. Expert witness Dr. Pablo Stewart, a psychiatrist, testified that the jail missed numerous opportunities to move A.H. to psychiatric housing, which Stewart said could have saved his life.
The court also heard from Dr. Todd Wilcox, former director of healthcare at the jail. Wilcox, a nationally recognized expert on jail healthcare, resigned from his job with the county on February 20. He named the unconstitutional conditions and poor medical care as reasons for his departure.
Prior to his resignation, Wilcox had testified on behalf of the county in other lawsuits. But his resignation letter made it clear that his conscience would no longer allow him to do so.
"Over the past few months, I have been tremendously saddened to see the progress that we made disintegrate and to watch CHS [the jail's healthcare arm] revert to its previous form of dysfunction," Wilcox wrote.
"The abnormally high rate of significant lawsuits against CHS and the county is losing/settling provides a compelling body of third-party evidence to support the assertion that the current administrative oversight of CHS is simply not effective," he adds.
"I have come to the realization that CHS is failing to deliver healthcare that meets constitutional minimums and that the current CHS administration is unqualified and has insufficient resources to rectify the situation moving into the future."
In 1995, as part of Hart v. Arpaio, the sheriff agreed to a court-ordered list of terms that were supposed to bring the jail up to constitutional standards. But about seven years ago, Arpaio's attorneys argued that those terms were outdated. The agreement was immediately suspended and has languished in court ever since.
In June, a new judge put the case on a fast track ("Judge Neil Wake Takes Action in Jail Conditions Lawsuit," John Dickerson, June 12). The trial proceeded speedily, and Judge Wake said in court that he expects to deliver a ruling by the end of September.
If the plaintiffs prevail, the lawsuit could result in the implementation of new court-ordered rules for Arpaio's jails. If not, then the plaintiffs will likely appeal.
Hill and Winter were up against four full-time attorneys who were paid with tax dollars to represent Arpaio and Maricopa County separately.
Among the attorneys representing Arpaio and the county were Dennis Wilenchik, who played a crucial role in the arrest of New Times owners ("Breathtaking Abuse of the Constitution," Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, October 18, 2007) and Michelle Iafrate, who was involved in the criminal charges filed against a New Times staffer ("Joe Arpaio's Men Fail to Justify Criminally Charging New Times Reporter Ray Stern," Michael Lacey, August 28).
It was an uphill battle for Hill and Winter because they had to prove the jail conditions were unconstitutional — yet they had to rely on the jails' own records to do so. Considering the jails' reputation with the tampering and destruction of records in other lawsuits, the plaintiffs were at the mercy of the MCSO, depending on how much the judge forced the sheriff's counsel to produce records.
Even with a federal court order, Winter and Hill said, the MCSO and its lawyers went out of their way to withhold some records, including those of Farias. When New Times asked Winter and Hill if they had heard of Juan Mendoza Farias, they immediately recognized the name and said it took a direct order from the federal judge to get Farias' records. Even then, the records were moved from one office to another, according to court testimony.
"They literally moved them to another office. Then we tried to get them from that lawyer, who would not produce them," Winter said.
After an additional court order, the MCSO's counsel then produced the records — barely two weeks before the trial began. Those records were primarily medical.
Unfortunately, the plaintiff's attorneys did not request the video footage that could have shown exactly what happened to Farias.
During closing arguments on September 4, Winter and Hill both told Judge Wake that the jails are unconstitutional.
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"For the most part, violence goes undetected and un-investigated in the jails," Hill said. "The overcrowding promotes a jail culture where inmates have to fend for themselves in order to be protected and held safe."
Hart v. Arpaio has been in process for more than 30 years. The case was formerly named Hart v. Hill, after an inmate named "Hart" who was allegedly mistreated by then-Sheriff Jerry Hill in 1977. Former sheriff Jerry Hill and plaintiff attorney Debra Hill are not related.
Arpaio inherited the lawsuit when he took office in 1992. The terms he agreed to in 1995 resulted from jail conditions under his own watch.
Because only one class-action lawsuit can be filed in federal court against a defendant at any one time, Hart v. Arpaio is the only class-action suit against Arpaio for the class of detainees awaiting trial.