The Cost of Cruelty

A federal jury awarded $9 million to the family and estate of a 33-year-old man who died after Maricopa County detention officers improperly strapped him in a restraint chair inside a county jail.

Mentally retarded and high on methamphetamine, Charles Agster III was forcibly placed in the chair inside the Madison Street jail by a squad of detention officers. During the struggle to harness him, which included putting a hood over his head, Agster stopped breathing and never regained consciousness.

He died three days later, on August 9, 2001, after doctors said he was brain-dead and his parents removed him from life support.

The March 24 verdict brings to a close a dark period for Agster's parents, who attended every day of the seven-week jury trial in their lawsuit against Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the county. Time and again, they saw videotapes of the chaotic last moments of their son's 45-minute stay inside the jail ("Death Sentence," March 16, 2006).

"We hope the judgment [that jurors] came up with will help prevent this from happening to other parents in the future," Carol Agster said after the verdict, her husband, Charles, and son, Larry, at her side.

The verdict marks the second time in seven years that the county and sheriff's office have been ordered to pay millions of dollars as a result of a lawsuit filed over the use of restraint chairs inside one of Arpaio's lockups.

The county agreed to an out-of-court, $8.25 million settlement in January 1999, after a wrongful-death suit was brought by the family of Scott Norberg, who died while strapped into a restraint chair in 1996.

Phoenix attorney Michael Manning represented both the Norbergs and the Agsters in the suits over the sheriff's office's use of the chairs. The Agster verdict was delivered by a jury of five men and seven women in U.S. District Court Judge James A. Teilborg's court.

Although this was the second time around for Manning, he said he hopes the verdict will send a powerful message to the county Board of Supervisors that deplorable conditions inside the county jails have become a major liability to county taxpayers.

"I hope that the Board of Supervisors hears [the message]," Manning said. "This county's own paid experts, own paid consultants have been telling this county for five and six years that there are serious and lethal problems in Joe Arpaio's jails. This jury now shouts from this roof that they agree."

In a written statement, Arpaio continued to defend his detention officers. "My officers did not cause this man to die," he declared.

Arpaio noted that the jury only levied damages of $1 against each of the nine detention officers involved in the incident.

Manning, however, pointed out that it was he who had asked the jury in his closing arguments to return $1 judgments against the jail guards. He said it wouldn't have been fair to hold them hugely accountable when they had never received proper training in how to safely use restraint chairs.

"They [did] two to 13 chairings every night in the [now-closed] Madison Street jail and not one of those people have ever been trained on how to do it safely without killing someone," Manning said. "So, that's why I asked the jury to [assess] a dollar to each one of those detention officers and to lay the wood to the MCSO."

Of the $9 million awarded, the jury allocated about $4.5 million in compensatory damages against the sheriff's office. The jury found county Correctional Health Services, which provides medical evaluation inside the jails, liable for $2.2 million in compensatory damages. The jury levied $180,000 in compensatory damages against CHS nurse Betty Lewis and another $2 million in punitive damages against Lewis.

Manning said the jury awarded punitive damages against Lewis because "she waited somewhere between 10 and 15 minutes to deliver CPR once she knew" Agster had stopped breathing.

The jury verdict totaled $10 million, but the jury apportioned $1 million worth of responsibility in Agster's death to Agster himself, his parents, and the person who sold him meth.

Manning said the detention officers involved in the incident violated at least six "crucial policies" in how they handled Agster in the final turbulent minutes of his life.

Arpaio, who testified in the trial that he sets the "tone" for how detention officers are to do their jobs, rewarded the officers involved in the Agster incident with promotions, Manning said.

"There was no discipline," Manning said. "They were promoted. What kind of system is that? What does that tell you about the culture of the sheriff's department? This is not a Third World country, but we have a sheriff's department that handles things like [it is]."