HOUSTON (AP) — Army Sgt. James Brown survived two tours of combat duty in Iraq. He died in a West Texas jail in 2012 while serving a weekend sentence for a DWI conviction.
Brown's death, which occurred after he became hostile and was restrained by jailers, was ruled natural due to a crisis of an undiagnosed sickle cell blood disorder. But this year, a forensic pathologist hired by El Paso County as part of its defense in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Brown's family disagreed, concluding it was a homicide and citing the restraint methods that jailers had used.
A video of the 26-year-old soldier after he was taken from his cell show him telling jailers at least 14 times that he couldn't breathe while being restrained and that he was choking on his blood.
But the pathologist's conclusion wasn't expected to affect the findings of the sheriff's department investigation, which determined that no disciplinary action against the officers involved or changes in policy were needed. A grand jury also declined to charge anyone. The county ultimately settled the lawsuit, but Brown's mother, Dinetta Scott, said she is committed to preventing similar jail deaths.
"Nobody deserves to go to jail and die," said Scott, who believes her son's post-traumatic stress disorder caused him to become hostile toward jailers.
Brown, who was stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso, reported to the county jail on July 13, 2012, to serve a two-day sentence. Early the next morning, Brown got upset after learning he would have to stay for five days because a fine had not been calculated in the time to be served. Jail officials said Brown became belligerent, hurt himself, covered his cell door window with toilet paper and didn't listen to commands.
Five detention officers entered Brown's cell. Within minutes of being pinned down by officers, Brown said, "Help me. Help me. ... I can't breathe."
Brown was taken to the jail's infirmary and sedated. On video taken by an officer, Brown is seen getting weaker and repeatedly asking for water and for a spit mask to be removed because he couldn't breathe.
Brown was returned to his cell and later found unresponsive. He was taken to a hospital and died the following day. The El Paso County medical examiner ruled Brown died from a sickle cell crisis. Sickle cell disease is a blood disorder that can slow down or block blood flow and oxygen throughout the body. The disease, which Brown apparently didn't know he had, can damage organs and cause stroke.
A report done by a former Texas Department of Public Safety commander for the county concluded "the minimal force used in this case was applied for the purpose of getting Brown medical care."
Satish Chundru, a forensic pathologist hired by the county after the lawsuit was filed, wrote in a June report that while it's unclear when Brown's sickling crisis began and that Brown's combative behavior could have precipitated the sickling crisis, "the eventual physical restraint by law enforcement made the situation worse." Chundru concluded Brown's manner of death was homicide.
The county settled the Brown family's lawsuit for nearly a half-million dollars in July. In an email, sheriff's office spokeswoman Chris Acosta said that Chundru's conclusion didn't influence the county's decision to settle.
"Due to numerous national events creating a negative impression of law enforcement, the county felt it was in its best interest to get this lawsuit behind it," Acosta said.
The issue of dealing with inmates who might have mental health problems has been a hot topic in Texas, particularly since last summer's death of Sandra Bland in a Waller County jail. Bland, who had claimed she suffered from PTSD and had tried to kill herself, was found hanging in her cell after being arrested during a traffic stop.
"Whatever we are doing, it's not good enough and in some instances, it's flat not working," said state Sen. John Whitmire, who chairs a state committee that has been reviewing jail safety standards and detainees' access to mental health services.
Several other Texas jail deaths have resulted in recent court settlements, including a $1 million jury award in October to the family of Terry Borum, who died in 2013 in the Swisher County Jail from a head injury he sustained after passing out from hunger as jail staff only gave him honey and orange juice while he underwent detox.
Brown's mother said she is working to bring attention to jail conditions so that similar deaths don't happen. Scott is gathering signatures for a petition calling for among other things improved training for how to handle inmates, particularly current or former soldiers, with PTSD.
"If he would have been in Iraq and he would have passed away, I would have closure ... but this," said Scott, who hopes her son is remembered as a loyal person who fought for his country.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter at https://twitter.com/juanlozano70
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