An article published this week in The Oregonian focuses on the death of a Jefferson County inmate earlier this year. The newspaper reports that a county judge acquitted three local jail officials on charges of criminally-negligent homicide. Yet the judge also ruled that the officers’ “failure to get medical care for (the inmate) was a ‘gross deviation from the standard of care a reasonable person would have done in this situation.” The clear contradiction between these two conclusions is even more troubling because things like this have happened in Oregon before.
The Oregonian reports that evidence presented at the trial showed that the inmate had been both vomiting and defecating blood for hours before he passed away (the paper reports that the Oregon medical examiner identified a stomach ulcer as the cause of death). A doctor who submitted written testimony for the trial concluded that more timely treatment would have saved the man’s life.
Yet, despite all of this, the court concluded that “there wasn’t enough evidence” linking inaction by the three officers to the man’s death to make the case legally solid. Despite their “deliberate indifference” toward the inmate’s well-being, the guards, according to the judge, bear no legal responsibility for his death. This is outrageous.
What makes this case especially tragic and frustrating is that we have all been here before. In May 2015 Jed Hawk Myers died in the Yamhill county jail despite five hours of asking for medical help that he clearly needed. According to a 2017 article in The Oregonian Myers “walked 19 times to the door to press an intercom button for help and urinated blood in the toilet inside his cell, but no one came to help.” Myers’ plight, which the newspaper has extensively documented in this video, eventually led to a wrongful death lawsuit. It should serve as a cautionary tale for jail staff throughout the state, and also offers a guide to how the family of the Jefferson County inmate should consider proceeding.
As an Oregon attorney I have used this space on several previous occasions to explain how incidents like this are properly seen as civil rights issues. Collectively, they are known as 1983 Cases. The name refers to a Supreme Court ruling which holds that when any state denies a citizen any of the “rights, privileges and immunities secured by the constitution and laws” it can be held liable under the nation’s civil rights laws and punished for its actions (or, in this case, inaction).
Inmates rarely inspire much public sympathy, but it is important to understand that sympathy is not the issue here. The Jefferson County sheriff may be “relieved to have this situation behind us,” as he told The Oregonian. But the judge’s own words in her decision acquitting the local officials make a strong argument for a civil case. If “gross deviation from the standard of care a reasonable person would have done in this situation” does not turn this into a civil rights issue, then it is difficult to see what would.
The Oregonian (May 2017): Inmate who died in jail tried to get help 19 times over 5 hours