The 22-year-old had turned himself in. Jerome Deon Ladette Harrell went to Stearns County jail to take care of outstanding warrants for failing to have proof of car insurance, then spent the night screaming, pacing and pounding on the door of his cell. The next morning, after a team of officers removed him from the room, he died.
Harrell’s family sued, saying that officers ignored his need for medical assistance for hours, then callously restrained and tasered him — actions they say lead to his death in 2012. But in federal court this week, an attorney for Stearns County and several jail and sheriff’s office employees asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that officers had subdued Harrell for a medical evaluation and were “doing the best they can to get him the care that he needed.”
Harrell’s death is “a tragedy,” their attorney argued in a court memo, “but the cause of his death is unknown and occurred while everyone was trying to help him.”
U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle said Tuesday that after weighing the arguments, he will decide whether the case moves forward in about a month. A trial has been tentatively set for March.
In a St. Paul courtroom half-full with about 20 of Harrell’s family members, friends and a few people wearing Black Lives Matter sweatshirts, the family’s attorney, Kenneth Udoibok, showed video taken on Feb. 24, 2012. Four officers enter Harrell’s cell, bringing him to the floor as he fights them and using a stun gun on him. A man in the back of the courtroom closed his eyes, putting his head in his hands.
Udoibok has argued that if Harrell, who was black, had been a middle-aged white man, jail staff would have asked more questions and gotten him psychiatric care. “Up until Mr. Harrell’s death, not one medical personnel even looked at him,” he told the courtroom Tuesday.
While being booked, Harrell had trouble concentrating, an officer reported. He offered to help police solve a shooting that happened near St. Cloud State University. In the cell, he spoke gibberish and screamed. He threw water on himself, later stripped naked and covered himself with a wet sheet.
At 8 a.m., the jail assigned an officer to observe Harrell one-on-one and found him “yelling nonsense, pacing, and throwing water.” Staff decided that Harrell needed a medical review, and that to do that review, Harrell had to be brought out of his cell and put in a restraint chair.
An officer videotaped what happened next. Harrell fought the officers, who were wearing protective gear such as helmets and a shield, kicking and biting them. An officer used a stun gun. At some point, Harrell went limp. Officers cut off the sheet that he had wrapped around his neck. They carried him downstairs, where a jail nurse began CPR. After being taken to St. Cloud Hospital, he was pronounced dead about 10 a.m.
The Ramsey County medical examiner found that the cause of Harrell’s “sudden unexpected death during restraint” could not be determined.
The lawsuit, filed last year, alleges that officers failed to provide medical treatment for Harrell’s “increasingly erratic behavior” and used excessive, unreasonable and deadly force against him. It also accuses Stearns County of failing to properly train its officers. It asks for damages of more than $10 million.
In court filings, Udoibok argues that Harrell was clearly suffering from “excited delirium syndrome,” with symptoms that can include psychotic behavior, overheating and grunting. Officers trained to recognize someone with the syndrome should know not to use a stun gun or great force, he said.
The county and its officers have denied any wrongdoing. An expert witness for the county reviewed the videotape and reported that Harrell kept resisting after being tasered, their attorney Jason Hiveley said in a memo, “which eliminates the possibility of the Taser being the causal factor of Harrell’s death.”
They’ve also pointed out that officers regularly checked on Harrell throughout the night, monitoring his “uncooperative behavior” and, when it worsened, alerting medical staff.
In court Tuesday, Hiveley argued that no physician ever diagnosed Harrell and the idea that he was suffering from excited delirium is “simply a theory.”
The officer who booked Harrell noted that he appeared to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Harrell’s howling and pounding “was not atypical of an inmate seeking attention or under the influence,” Hiveley wrote in a memo. Harrell never asked for medical attention, he said.
“There’s no evidence that contacting medical sooner” might have saved Harrell’s life, he added. “He literally fought to the death to prevent them from providing medical care.”