Utah reports to feds omit inmates 'released' from custody after deadly incidents

Tuesday , February 13, 2018 - 12:00 AM

Another name has been added to the unofficial list of people who’ve died after entering a Northern Utah jail, but whose demise was not considered a federally reportable “in-custody” death because he expired later at a hospital.

The murkiness of in-custody death reporting in Utah will be addressed in a bill awaiting drafting in this year’s Utah legislative session, said the sponsor, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross.

RELATED: As lawsuits accumulate, Utah jail inmate screening gains life-or-death focus

Of 12 jailed people the Standard-Examiner has learned died of suicide, injury or medical problems since the beginning of 2016, four cases were either not initially handled as in-custody deaths or not listed in jail death documents obtained with public records requests.

The federal government requires states to submit annual reports of in-custody deaths to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, which then publishes prison and jail death reports each year.

But if a local jurisdiction does not handle a death as an “in-custody” case, it will not be reported in the national figures. 

That’s apparently why the deaths of Heather Miller, Matthew Hall, Max Toledo and most recently, Ashley Jessop, were made known only after tips by the public to news reporters.

All four people suffered a major injury or medical complication in jail and left via ambulance in serious condition, unconscious and unresponsive. The sheriff’s department officials said in each instance the victims were technically released from jail custody when they left the facility.

In late January, Michelle Shafer of Hooper alerted the Standard-Examiner to the death of her son, Jessop, after he was arrested on suspicion of public intoxication on Feb. 27, 2016. Jessop died of acute liver failure and other causes March 3 at a local hospital.

Shafer’s attorney filed a federal suit Monday, Feb, 5, 2018, against Weber County and Ogden City for allegedly failing to heed Jessop’s comments during jail booking that he was suicidal, on psychiatric medications and had a history of seizures.

“This is just one of those in a slew of county jail deaths that Utah has that are just running rampant,” said Shafer’s attorney, Shane Gosdis. “We believe they are understaffed, have improper training and are disregarding the health of the inmates.”

Hall’s passing was another hospital death after jail.

The Ogden man broke his neck by diving into the floor while on suicide watch in the Weber County jail on Feb. 24, 2016, and died in a Salt Lake hospital about six weeks later. The assault suspect was believed to be mentally ill and was waiting for months to get into the Utah State Hospital for treatment before his case could move through the courts.

Two Davis County deaths were not listed as in-custody cases because the inmates, critically injured in the jail, died later at the hospital.

Heather Miller was pronounced dead Dec. 21, 2016, at McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden a few hours after she fell from her bunk, a blow that almost severed her spleen. The jail released her from custody with paperwork listing a “promise to appear” in court. At the time, she was unconscious and undergoing resuscitation efforts by paramedics.

Toledo hanged himself in the jail and died several days later at Lakeview Hospital. His death was not listed as one of Davis County’s 2016 jail deaths on a document obtained by the Standard-Examiner with an open records request.

Nothing in state law compels sheriff’s offices to report jail deaths to the general public, so they usually don’t.

County law enforcement protocols and sheriff’s office policies usually call for internal investigations and notification of the county attorney when in-custody deaths occur, but information about the deaths largely stays within the halls of government.

Next of kin usually are notified, yet several relatives have complained that authorities offer skimpy information about the circumstances of death.

Despite the uproar, there’s no indication that the lack of officially generated publicity about jail deaths has changed, despite numerous lawsuits. news coverage, attention from of state legislators or admonishments by advocacy groups including the Americans for Civil Liberties Union and the Disability Law Center.

For example, Gregory Leigh Hayes died in the Davis County Jail’s booking area on Dec. 14, 2017. A friend of the victim’s mother told the Standard-Examiner about it in January.

Last July, an Ogden man’s body stayed in the state morgue for several weeks until his brother, who lives in Los Angeles, finally tracked him down after a series of phone calls to agencies in Salt Lake County.

PUBLIC ANNOUNCEMENTS RARE

Of the 12 inmate deaths involving Northern Utah jails in the last two years, authorities reported only two to the general public:

Rex Iverson died of an unknown medical cause in the Box Elder County Jail’s booking area in January 2016. The sheriff’s office issued a press release that day and said the Northern Utah Critical Incident Team had been called together to investigate.

Flint Harrison, awaiting trial in the murder of a Utah Transit Authority worker, hanged himself in the Davis jail in July 2016, and the sheriff’s office issued a press release.

Harrison was a notorious suspect who had received wide publicity, unlike the three other men who hanged themselves in the jail that summer.

Weiler said his bill would require jails to submit annual reports of in-custody deaths to the Legislature. He said the measure also will address the gray area of hospital deaths not being included in the totals reported by jails.

It is not known when Weiler’s bill will be introduced.

“The bill is still in line for drafting — like hundreds of others,” Weiler said.

Each year, many bills die simply because lawmakers don’t have time to consider them all during their 45-day session. The 2018 session ends March 8. 

STATE DEATH REPORT POLICIES VARY

Various other states require jails to report deaths to state authorities.

In North Carolina, a jail must report an in-custody death to the state Department of Health and Human Services, which has authority to determine whether jails are adhering to state inspection standards.

In Texas, a law enforcement agency with a death in its custody has 30 days to file a written report to the state attorney general. Texas law also says a law enforcement official who fails to file a death report or leaves out pertinent details can be charged with a class B misdemeanor.

Weber County Sheriff’s Office policy calls for invocation of the county’s critical incident protocol after the “death of any person, for whatever reason (natural, suicide, homicide, accident), who is in the process of being booked or is incarcerated at any facility of this office.”

However, the provision excludes “fatal injuries which occur while a person is under a physician’s treatment for a disease or other natural condition which has been diagnosed prior to death and which does not involve custodial trauma, custodial suicide or custodial ingestion of a toxic substance.”

PROJECT: Investigating Northern Utah jail deaths

Box Elder and Davis County sheriff’s policies have similar provisions.

A political clash has further muddled in-custody death reporting in Davis County.

Sheriff’s office policy says the sheriff’s detective division is to investigate such deaths, while the county attorney’s critical incident protocol says the attorney should be notified of any in-custody death.

County Attorney Troy Rawlings said his office was not notified by Sheriff Todd Richardson’s office of Miller’s death or the death of Dominic Landreth, who hanged himself in the jail shower in August 2016.

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt and like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/SEMarkShenefelt.

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