Tweaking the Truth

For more than two years, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office has kept secret a toxicologist's report concluding inmate Scott Norberg--who died when detention officers stuffed him into a restraint chair on June 1, 1996--was not high on methamphetamines at the time of his death, and that the drug had no direct effect on his behavior at the time, records recently unearthed in the case reveal.

That conclusion is contrary to what Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his office have been telling the public since the high-profile death. The Norberg family has filed a $20 million lawsuit against the county and Arpaio.

The sheriff's office turned over a document last month to the Norbergs' attorney that shows a toxicologist told sheriff's investigators in November 1996 that the meth in Norberg's system was ingested approximately 36 hours before his death. The toxicologist also said that the meth in Norberg's urine "would not cause a psychoactive effect on Norberg at the time of the incident," and that "there would be no direct effect caused by the methamphetamine on Norberg's behavior at the time of the incident," according to the document. (Emphasis not added.)

Detention officers had told sheriff's investigators that Norberg seemed high and that he had exhibited "superhuman strength" when they attempted to restrain him. Sheriff's office pronouncements on the case have emphasized that testimony as well as Norberg's documented problems with drugs and his erratic behavior the day he was arrested.

Arpaio's spokeswoman Lisa Allen says the sheriff's office is sticking by its story.

"I don't think that there's any reason for me to tell you that we've varied from that position. I mean, that was the feeling of the detention officers who were there at the time, that was what was reported to the people at the office here and others who investigated the case. There's no reason to believe it's changed. . . . Those who were there that day believe that he was under the influence of some sort of substance, and whatever influence he was under seemed to provide him with an inordinate amount of strength," she says.

Last week, Norberg family attorney Mike Manning filed a motion complaining that the sheriff's office took too long to turn over the document. He demanded that the agency be compelled to hand over more than 10,000 documents still being withheld from the Norbergs.

Manning bases his estimate of how many records are being withheld on a document numbering system used by sheriff's office attorney Paul Lazarus. The numbering system also suggests the length of time the sheriff's attorney has had certain records. In the case of the toxicology report, Manning wrote, there's no question about its age: Dated November 19, 1996, it displays a fax transmission date from Arpaio to Lazarus dated January 21, 1997.

"These documents obviously have been deliberately withheld from production for the past two years!" Manning wrote in his complaint to federal Judge Paul Rosenblatt. "The documents are so clearly and inarguably relevant and critical to this case that their withholding defies any explanation other than that defendants have purposefully attempted to suppress evidence and to thwart the judicial process."

Lazarus disagrees about the significance of the toxicology report. "Essentially what that document says is that there wasn't sufficient methamphetamine in Norberg's blood to have an effect on his death. But our position is that there was a sufficient amount of methamphetamine to cause a drug/alcohol-induced psychosis, which caused him to fight as vociferously as he did."

But that seems to directly contradict the toxicologist's opinion that Norberg's meth level "would not cause a psychoactive effect."

"That's a matter of interpretation," Lazarus says.
Manning, however, considers the toxicologist's report the "smoking gun" in the case.

"As the Court is aware the MCSO and its public relations 'spin doctors,' immediately after Scott's death, began to fabricate a story to discredit Scott by suggesting that a drug-induced delirium caused him to commence an attack on the jailers," Manning said in the motion. "More recently, the MCSO has submitted expert witness reports in this lawsuit claiming Scott's behavior was drug-induced, and that he died of drug-induced 'excited delirium.' . . ."

Moreover, Manning said, if the Norbergs had known about the toxicologist's report, they would have been better able to find experts to testify during the early stages of the case, especially during depositions of key witnesses including Tom Bearup.

Bearup, formerly one of Arpaio's most trusted aides, tells New Times Arpaio told him in 1996 he would go to the press with statements about Norberg's drug problems if Norberg's parents sued the sheriff's office. Bearup says he testified about Arpaio's threats during a November 18 deposition. Now, Bearup says, Lazarus is trying to keep him from receiving a copy of his deposition; Lazarus filed a motion recently asking that Bearup read and sign his deposition without getting a copy.

"They don't want me to have a copy. They don't want me to give it to you or anybody else. My goodness, it's a public record, anyone should be able to see it. They're scared to death," Bearup says.

Manning's motion to force Lazarus to turn over documents is the latest of several he's filed asking the court to sanction the county and the sheriff's office for its behavior in the case.

Last month, Manning accused the county of destroying evidence--including Norberg's larynx, notes taken by a detention officer involved in the incident, and head x-rays of Norberg. Rosenblatt has yet to rule on those motions.

Meanwhile, the county's bill in the case continues to rise. County records show that taxpayers have now paid more than $600,000 to defend the county in the lawsuit.

Contact Tony Ortega at his online address: [email protected]

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Tony Ortega
Contact: Tony Ortega