A lawsuit filed on behalf of a man who died the morning after he turned himself in to the Stearns County jail was sent back to a St. Paul judge after a federal appeals court found evidence that jail staff failed to adequately respond to his "bizarre and erratic behavior."
But a three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals stopped short Tuesday of reversing the dismissal of claims by the family of 22-year-old Jerome Deon Ladette Harrell that Stearns County jail staff used excessive force when it finally tried to extract Harrell from his cell to seek medical treatment.
Harrell became unresponsive within minutes of a February 2012 jail cell encounter in which he bit one officer and was tased by another. He was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital soon after and an autopsy described his death as "sudden unexpected death during restraint." An investigator also photographed a large pool of blood on the floor stemming from a laceration to Harrell's head.
Harrell's family sued in 2014, saying officers ignored clear needs for medical assistance for more than eight hours. Harrell had turned himself in to authorities to take care of outstanding warrants for failing to have proof of car insurance. But while being held overnight, he exhibited "bizarre and erratic behavior," screaming, pacing and pounding on his cell door.
U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle dismissed the lawsuit in 2015, finding that two officers on duty during much of Harrell's stay took "reasonable measures" to check on him throughout the night. But Eighth Circuit Judge Diana Murphy wrote Tuesday that "a reasonable fact-finder could conclude that Harrell was suffering from an obvious medical need" and the failure to seek treatment was "a clearly inadequate response." The panel also remanded claims alleging violations of state law, including wrongful death.
It did not, however, reverse Kyle's decision to dismiss claims of excessive force stemming from attempts by four officers to restrain a resisting, naked Harrell. Eighth Circuit Judge Jane Kelly dissented from that decision, arguing that "a reasonable jury could find that too many officers entered a small cell and exerted too much pressure on a distraught man lying prone, thus placing him at high risk of asphyxiation."
Kenneth Udoibok, the family's attorney, welcomed the decision Tuesday but added, "it shouldn't be this hard to have to present your case before a jury.
"Why is it so hard for people to see … the value of a black man's life?" Udoibok said.
Jason Hiveley, an attorney for the defendants, said he agreed with Eighth Circuit Judge James Loken's dissenting opinion that Kyle's decision should have been affirmed. Hiveley said the defense will likely seek a rehearing by the full Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.
"We do not believe the fact dispute found by Judges Murphy and Kelly is supported by the record or current Eighth Circuit and Supreme Court precedent," Hiveley said.