Lawyers say man injured in jail to get $3 million -- County says suit not settled yet

Ventura County Star (California) December 2, 2006

Copyright 2006 Ventura County Star
All Rights Reserved
Ventura County Star (California)

December 2, 2006 Saturday

BYLINE: By Raul Hernandez

Attorneys representing a man who is in a vegetative state said county officials agreed this week to settle a federal lawsuit for $3 million that was filed by the former jail inmate.

Attorney Earnest Bell said Donald Guyron Richards was struck with a baton, pepper-sprayed, beaten, forced facedown on the floor while handcuffed and his chest compressed by sheriff's deputies who held him down in 2004.

Capt. Ron Nelson, spokesman for the Ventura County Sheriff's Department, said the settlement has not been finalized.

Richards, who had been arrested on a misdemeanor drug charge, stopped breathing and suffered irreparable brain damage that has left him in a vegetative state, said Bell. He is now in a nursing home in Northridge.

"He sits there and stares at the ceiling," said Bell, adding that about every five minutes he makes moaning-like sounds.  Bell and the other plaintiff's lawyer, John Burton, blame the incident on inadequate training of Ventura County Sheriff's Department deputies.  "I know that they covered this stuff in training; somehow, they didn't apply their training," said Bell.

The lawsuit was filed by Richards' mother, Joan Richards; his wife, Kara; and his two children, who are 10 and 14 years old.

Burton, who represents Joan Richards, said the case epitomizes everything that is going on throughout police departments in the United States.  "This shows that certain police agencies are not willing to balance risk against their own set of tactics," said Burton, who has been handling excessive force cases for 23 years. "This was just horrible." 

County doesn't admit wrongdoing

As part of this settlement, the county will not admit to any wrongdoing.

Los Angeles Attorney Tom Hurrell, who represented the county, is on vacation and couldn't be reached for comment.

The excessive force and civil rights lawsuit names the county, Sheriff Bob Brooks and several deputies as defendants.  Nelson said he couldn't comment on whether the Sheriff's Department has made any changes to the way it handles inmates who are under the influence of drugs, mentally ill or out of control.

Nelson referred questions about the lawsuit to the county's other attorney, Alan Wisotsky of Oxnard.  Wisotsky said he worked on the case with Hurrell, who is a lawyer for the county's insurance company. He said he hasn't seen the compromise settlement yet so it would be premature to comment on the case.

"I interpret that as being still active," Wisotsky said. "What has happened in the last 24 hours (in this case) is unknown to me."

Wisotsky said he is "dismayed" that The Star was contacted at this time.  "It sounds like it was sent to you before the ink was even dry," he said.

Bell and Burton said the case is settled, providing a copy of the court-approved deal.  A final status conference is scheduled Feb. 5. to iron out legal housekeeping details, said Bell.  "This is really a large settlement for a police agency but is a horrific injury," said Burton.

According to Bell, Burton and allegations in the lawsuit, this is what happened:
On June 18, 2004, Donald Richards was arrested while riding his bicycle by the Oxnard Police Department on suspicion of being under the influence of drugs. He was taken to the jail's intake health screening unit and had no medical problems.

"He's cooperative. How do we know this? Because we've got this part of the video," said Bell.  Bell said Donald Richards' actions in jail were videotaped by a surveillance camera and proved to be a key piece of evidence. Donald Richards is later seen on the videotape hallucinating and acting strangely, Bell said.

"He is having some type of mental breakdown," he said. "He is fighting spider webs. He is hallucinating. He is doing kung fu stuff. Why is he acting weird? Methamphetamines, probably."

According to Bell, the sobering and safety cells are both padded detention rooms.

Donald Richards was in a so-called sobering cell for four to six hours when it was decided to move him to a "safety cell," which has a toilet, said Burton.

Bell said six or seven guards wearing gas masks and armor jumped on Donald Richards and held him down.  "They were on top of him until he suffocates, and he goes brain-dead," said Bell. "His last words seem to say,I can't breathe,' and then he goes quiet."  "You can hear him clearly gasping for air and falling silent," Burton said.

Also named in the lawsuit initially was Aerko International, the manufacture of the pepper spray called Deep Freeze. Later, Aerko International was dropped as a defendant, said Bell.

Bell said the deputies used two very large canisters of pepper spray on Donald Richards.

"I would describe it like a spray paint-can size," Bell said. "The (product) literature says to give them a two-second spray, wait until he rehabilitates and go in and try to apprehend the suspect. This guy (Donald Richards) was sprayed a couple of minutes' worth You look at this and the guy was literally drenched in it."

Pepper spray irritates, burns the eyes and the affects the mucus membranes, said Bell.  "This product gives you the sensation that you are suffocating, so it elicits a little bit of panic in you," said Bell. "It's bad stuff."

Bell readily admits that his client was a career criminal battling a drug addiction that he had been trying to kick for years.  "Is he a model student? No," said Bell, adding that Donald Richards was never convicted of committing a violent crime.

Donald Richards also was a loving father, son and husband when he wasn't feeding a drug addiction, said Bell.  "I have him on videotape where he is reciting prayers, Psalms," said Bell.