Family of Black Veteran Who Died in Jail Without Food & Water Gets $10 Million
A federal jury awarded $10.2 million to the family of an Oklahoma Army vet who died after spending days in a Tulsa jail cell with a broken neck.
On Monday afternoon, jurors sided with the estate of Elliott Williams, whose final moments were captured on surveillance video. The footage, which garnered national attention, showed a paralyzed Williams, lying naked on his back and grasping for food and water that detention officers dropped out of his reach.
Jail employees believed Williams, who was African-American, was “faking” paralysis despite his pleas for help, and they placed him in a video-monitored cell to catch him moving, according to trial testimony and an internal probe by the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office.
The verdict came after 10 hours of deliberations that began on Friday afternoon and ended Monday. Jurors ordered Tulsa County to pay $10 million and former sheriff Stanley Glanz to pay $250,000 in punitive damages to Williams’s estate.
Don Smolen, an attorney for Williams’s estate, had asked jurors for $51 million in compensatory damages—or $1 million for every hour Williams was “left suffering in his cell.” (The surveillance footage of Williams’s death was 51 hours long.)
Smolen asked for “$1 million for every hour that Elliott Williams was left suffering in his cell, covered in feces and urine, suffocating as his lungs began to collapse slowly over the course of several days, unable to feed himself, unable to drink, begging for water, and begging for help that never came.”
While he didn’t ask jurors for a specific amount for punitive damages, Smolen said, “If ever there was a case where punitive damages were appropriate, it’s this one.”
Williams’s older brother, Kevin, began crying after the verdict was read, the Frontier reported.
Outside the courthouse, Kevin Williams told reporters he was “satisfied” with the jury’s decision but believes someone at the sheriff’s office should have been charged criminally over his brother’s death.
“Somebody should have been charged. I’m not satisfied fully but I’m content with the decision,” he said.
When asked by a reporter if he had closure yet, Williams shook his head.
“No amount of money is going to bring him back,” Williams added.
Clark Brewster, an attorney for Glanz and the sheriff’s office, said they plan to appeal to jury’s verdict.
“The chances of the appellate court reversing this is about 100 percent,” Brewster told The Daily Beast on Tuesday.
“If I sat down with this jury and told them what they didn’t hear, they would be furious,” he added.
The proceedings stem from a lawsuit against former Tulsa sheriff Stanley Glanz and current sheriff Vic Regalado, in his official capacity as a sheriff’s department representative. The jail’s private medical operator, Correctional Healthcare Companies Inc., settled out of court.
According to the complaint, cops arrested Williams at an Owasso hotel in October 2011 while he was having a mental breakdown. The veteran, whose wife had just left him, was charged with misdemeanor obstruction.
Williams died from “complications of vertebrospinal injuries due to blunt force trauma,” the medical examiner ruled. He was also dehydrated at the time of his death
The three-week trial—focusing on Williams’s treatment and allegations of widespread misconduct within the county lockup—was a scathing indictment of the agency and former sheriff Glanz.
Indeed, to win their case, attorneys for Williams’s estate had to demonstrate that jailers were deliberately indifferent to the Army vet’s constitutional rights and aware of departmental issues that contributed to the violation of those rights.
They needed to show that Williams’s negligent care was more than an isolated incident involving a single inmate.
Brewster told jurors there was no evidence that detention officers knew Williams was paralyzed. In closing arguments, he suggested Williams may have died of a heart ailment and that video of Williams dying in his jail cell was possibly “manipulated in some way.”
Williams “ran into a wall and ultimately caused a back injury,” Brewster said. “We didn’t cause that. We didn’t cause his heart condition.
“So I guess the issue for counsel is that somehow after he became paralyzed and we believed it was a psychological situation instead of a medical one, suddenly we should have second-guessed the doctors and did something differently…” the defense lawyer added.
“We didn’t cause the injury. We weren’t deliberately indifferent to him,” Brewster told jurors. “We were acting on the information we received.”
Brewster concluded his summation by expressing his bond with the former sheriff: “I’m proud to represent Stanley Glanz, who counsel has pointed out is a friend. I truly love the man, and I’ll stand there right beside him.”
Brewster had previously argued that not all of Williams’s movements were captured on the jail’s motion-activated cameras. He said the devices failed to capture Williams allegedly drinking and eating.
Still, by several accounts, the Tulsa jail was described as a big house of horrors. Former staffers testifying for Williams’s legal team described it as a place where deputies allegedly punished prisoners by pouring water on their meals or placing inmates on suicide watch when they weren’t suicidal.
And it’s a place where a doctor administered injections through inmates’ jugular veins, according to a 2012 internal memo presented in court. That document showed the jail’s psychiatrist had expressed concerns over the use of saltwater placebos for one patient and methadone for another prisoner, who was pregnant.
Jailers also allegedly performed CPR on dead inmates. A former director of nursing testified that detainees “weren’t allowed to be pronounced dead until after they left the jail” to prevent bad publicity and crime scenes inside the facility.
African-American employees were allegedly troubled by the jail’s practices, too, and filed racial discrimination suits against the department. Those cases, settled in 2011, cost Tulsa County nearly $1 million, the Tulsa World reported.
As The Daily Beast previously revealed, Sheriff Glanz testified that he was OK with deputies calling black suspects “n*gronoids” or “n*groids.”
Another attorney for Williams’s family, Daniel Smolen, told The Daily Beast that he learned of the department’s alleged use of the racist terminology after discovering a 2006 memo with the letters “N” or “W” marked next to employees’ names.
When Smolen asked Glanz about the memo, the ex-lawman testified he “didn’t have any problem” with the terms “because when I was a young police officer, the FBI designated races by the term ‘coin,’ Caucasian, oriental, Indian and N*groid.”
“And all of the reports that I dealt with when I was in the policing agency, I was an ID man and that was a designation that the FBI used in the ’60s and ’70s,” Glanz testified, according to court transcripts.
Glanz also admitted that he didn’t watch the video of Williams’s death until 2013, on the day before his deposition in the case.
“You did not think that reviewing the video of Mr. Williams dying in your jail was an important thing to do; correct?” Smolen asked Glanz.
“I thought it was important for me to do what was recommended by my staff to examine,” Glanz replied, “and that was not one of their recommendations.”
It’s unclear what caused Williams’s fatal injury. Security footage shows Williams walking in Tulsa’s booking area on Oct. 22, 2011.
An Owasso cop told state investigators that he slammed Williams to the ground while cuffing him inside the jail’s booking room. But the officer said Williams “appeared to be fine with no injuries,” court records show.
A fellow inmate said Williams fell after ramming his head into the door of his holding cell, according to an internal review by then-sheriff’s corporal Billy McKelvey. Williams told deputies he thought his neck was broken, McKelvey’s probe found, but he was left alone in the cell for the next 10 hours.
In court, Dan Smolen appeared to cast doubt on claims that Williams rammed his head and asked Glanz why the only witness was a prisoner interviewed two months after Williams died. Glanz testified that he had no explanation.
Don Smolen referred to this during closing arguments, too, telling jurors: “Nobody really knows what happened to [Williams]. The only person that alleges to have seen him hit his head is an inmate that didn’t come here to testify.”
After Williams had urinated and defecated on himself, detention officers dumped him several feet from a gurney and into a shower, where his head slammed against a concrete floor, McKelvey’s report stated.
Officers told McKelvey they left Williams, who remained motionless, in the shower for 30 minutes. But Dan Smolen presented a handwritten logbook indicating Williams was left there for nearly two hours.
The Daily Beast previously reported that supervisors tried to get Williams into the shower but he couldn’t move. One nurse told Williams he should be “ashamed” of himself, to “quit faking” and to get his “nasty ass” in the bath, court papers allege.
Earlier in the trial, Oklahoma’s deputy medical examiner testified the sheriff’s office failed to provide the video of Williams’s death. The agency also allegedly withheld crucial details from the coroner about his complaints of a broken neck, said Dr. Joshua Lanter.
“The information was initially that he refused to move … and that he was certainly on suicide watch and wanted someone to cut him open and that he was in pain,” Lanter said of the reports he received from the sheriff’s office.
“They said he refused to move, not that he was unable,” Lanter added, according to the Frontier.
The state conducted the autopsy without the video footage. It was only after Williams’s family ordered a second, private autopsy from a forensic pathologist that the state coroner determined the cause of death, Lanter said.
A spinal cord injury, accompanied by a fractured vertebrae in Williams’s neck, likely caused him to suffocate on the floor of his cell, Lanter told jurors. Williams could have struggled to breathe for hours, Lantner testified.
Meanwhile, McKelvey described an alleged pattern of records falsification and failure of protocol in Williams’s case.
One detention officer recorded two checks for every one she made on Williams but was never disciplined for it, McKelvey testified.
Another officer claimed to deliver Williams the last meal of his life: breakfast at 5:15 a.m., and her notes stated, “Mr. Williams was able to feed himself.”
“We watched the video. The jury’s watched this video. You watched this video as part of your IA investigation. Was Mr. Williams feeding himself on October the 27th of 2011 at 5:15 a.m.?” Smolen asked, to which McKelvey replied, “No.”
Smolen asked if the cop falsified the record and McKelvey said, “Yes.”
When asked whether he thought Williams’s death was a “system screw-up,” McKelvey replied, “I think this was a complete failure with respect to detention staff and medical staff, the communications, the follow through.”
“It was just a complete failure,” McKelvey added. “The system failed.”
Guy Fortney, of the sheriff’s legal team, questioned McKelvey about his definition of a systemic failure. Jailers followed the system, Fortney suggested, by consulting the medical unit on inmate health issues as they were trained to do.
“As reflected in your report, they relied upon medical, didn’t they?” Fortney asked, and McKelvey answered in the affirmative.
Fortney then asked about Dr. Stephen Harnish, the jail’s psychiatrist who put Williams in a surveillance cell because he believed he was feigning his injury. “And you wouldn’t have expected any detention officer to question Dr. Harnish’s note that he doubted the cause of Mr. Williams’ paralysis, would you?”
McKelvey said no.
As early as 2007, private and government auditors found lapses in Tulsa County jail’s medical care, including delays in prisoners receiving meds.
A 2011 review by the Department of Homeland Security found “a prevailing attitude among clinic staff of indifference.” That audit, by the agency’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, was completed weeks before Williams died.
Dr. Scott Allen, who conducts audits for the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, reviewed Williams’s case as an expert for the plaintiff’s attorneys. (Allen was not involved in the 2011 DHS audit.)
Tulsa’s jail suffered from a “culture of inhumanity” that led to Williams’s allegedly preventable death, Allen testified.
The expert, who is employed by the University of California, Riverside, School of Medicine, pointed to “scant” records of Williams’s medical care—and no documentation that he ever received a physical exam. The only vital record available was a handwritten note entered into the jail’s system months after Williams died, Allen said.
According to Allen’s review of the case, Williams would have survived if jailers had provided “timely and adequate medical care.”
“The way he was treated and what we can observe from the available records and video, it is so unresponsive, as to be inhumane and did not respect his human dignity,” Allen testified.
More than 20 witnesses, including former jail staffers, testified over the span of 17 days, according to the Frontier. The sheriff’s office called three: a physician who audited the jail, a chaplain who claimed to speak to Williams, and a maintenance supervisor who runs the jail’s motion-activated video system.
Dr. Howard Roemer testified that he was asked to review the jail’s medical unit in September 2011 and that he believed employees made a “good-faith effort” when it came to inmate care.
“You know, in both reviewing—reviewing the records, watching care being delivered at the jail, I always felt there was a good-faith effort by all the people there to try to take care of complex situations in a complex system,” he said.
The supervisor, Steven Miller, testified that the jail’s new video system was installed Oct. 22, 2011—the day Williams entered custody. The system records 24 hours a day but only saves footage that shows movement inside a cell.
Miller told jurors he believes there are many times when the system didn’t capture Williams moving his hands, court transcripts show.
Brewster asked Miller if the camera, which records when detecting changes in pixels or lighting, missed Williams moving because he was lying on a black blanket and was a “darker-skinned individual.” Miller replied that was possible.
Miller said detention officers moving outside Williams’s cell or dropping food trays inside triggered the saved recordings.
When questioned by Smolen, however, Miller said he did not believe Williams was walking, eating or drinking as Brewster, the attorney for the sheriff, stated.
The defense’s final witness, chaplain Charles Bradshaw, said he sat outside the metal door of WIlliams’s cell and spoke to him through the “bean hole,” or food port. After a brief conversation, Bradshaw said he prayed for Williams.
Bradshaw said that he checked on Williams after receiving a phone call from his father, Earl, on the morning of Oct. 27, 2011. Earl Williams said the medical unit wouldn’t allow him to visit his son, who was on suicide watch.
When the chaplain got there, he allegedly tried telling Williams he would be removed from suicide watch and see his dad soon.
“Now, I repeated that three times to him because I wanted to be sure he understood me. I felt like, you know, he wasn’t really paying much attention to me,” Bradshaw testified, according to court transcripts.
Under questioning by Smolen, Bradshaw testified that Earl Williams sounded desperate to see his son. But, according to the chaplain, jail policy doesn’t allow phone calls or visits for inmates on suicide watch.
Earl Williams pleaded for days to see his son in jail, according to an Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation report.
Smolen dug into the chaplain’s claims, saying the surveillance footage from Williams’s cell does not show Bradshaw at the hour he claimed to pray with Williams. Instead, the timeframe revealed a medical staffer outside the door.
Smolen questioned whether Bradshaw spoke outside another inmate’s suicide cell by mistake. Bradshaw replied, “No, sir …. This was cell 1. I know cell 1 very well.”
The attorney also asked about Bradshaw’s initial claims to state investigators that Williams was wearing an orange jumpsuit and that he rolled over. “ In the video, I didn’t see him rolling over. Did you?”
“I just saw movement,” Bradshaw replied. “You know, all I can say is at that time whenever I had the interview, I remembered that he moved… he didn’t really roll over, as such. He moved.”