By Christopher Zoukis
Three California jail guards have been charged with assaulting and murdering a mentally ill prisoner after he was found unresponsive in his cell shortly after midnight on August 27, 2015.
Santa Clara County jail deputies Jereh Lubrin, Rafael Rodriguez and Matthew Farris were arrested in September 2015 and charged with the beating death of Michael Tyree, 31, a schizophrenic homeless man who had finished serving a five-day sentence for petty theft and was awaiting transfer to a mental health facility. [See: PLN, June 2016, p.63].
The guards were also charged with assaulting Juan Villa, another prisoner, shortly before killing Tyree, according to prosecutors.
“These men violated the law, human dignity, and a job that they were sworn to do,” said Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen. A coroner’s report determined that Tyree’s death was due to multiple blunt force injuries to his liver and spleen, resulting in internal bleeding. At a news conference, Sheriff Laurie Smith said she felt “disappointment and disgust” about what had happened, and noted the three jailers were the only people with access to Tyree at the time of his death.
According to the charging documents, on the evening of August 26, 2015, Deputy Lubrin confronted Tyree about a dispute over medication that Tyree had with a nurse in the Santa Clara jail’s unit reserved for prisoners with mental health issues. After the 10:00 p.m. lockdown, Lubrin and fellow deputy Farris entered Tyree’s cell, ostensibly to search for extra clothing; they were joined by Rodriguez ten minutes later.
The same three deputies had just visited Juan Villa’s cell to confront him about a fight he had had earlier, then assaulted him before moving on to Tyree.
Other prisoners reported they could hear Tyree screaming in his “distinctive voice,” saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, please, please, I’m sorry,” accompanied by “the sounds of thumping, wall banging and what sounded like blows to a person’s body,” according to the Sheriff’s Department report included in the charging documents.
After the beating, the jailers did not call for medical assistance and left the unit around 11:00 p.m. It was not until an hour later that Lubrin returned to the unit to make his rounds, then radioed that there was a man down.
At 12:35 p.m., Tyree was pronounced dead.
Fellow prisoner Armando Galvin, who witnessed many of these events, said he’d seen guards use excessive force before. “[Tyree was] pretty much harmless, so I really don’t know why they would go in there and do that to Tyree,” he stated.
In response to Tyree’s death and the resulting public outcry, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors made the bold move of deciding to equip jail guards with body cameras – a surveillance tool typically reserved for police officers.
The Board also made a unanimous decision to appoint a “blue ribbon committee” to review jail policies and practices, and elected to install more surveillance cameras. In April 2016, the committee presented its findings and more than 120 recommendations to the Board of Supervisors. The recommendations included greater transparency, reform of processes for handling prisoner complaints and a change of jail administration personnel within the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office.
In addition to those reforms, Sheriff Smith announced that she was installing an anonymous hotline for jail employees and prisoners alike to report abuses. Further, new jailers are required to engage in 40 hours of “crisis intervention team” training, which is specifically designed to help them manage mentally ill detainees in crisis.
Not all stakeholders supported the use of body cameras by jail guards. Lance Scimeca, president of the Santa Clara County Correctional Peace Officers’ Association and a sergeant at the jail, explained that fixed cameras should be used instead. His justification was two-fold: one, that body cameras could give informants pause and make them less likely to cooperate, and two, that requiring body cams was unnecessary, even in the wake of the murder charges against his colleagues.
According to Scimeca, “I don’t think it is necessary to have a body-worn camera on a deputy in a secure lunch room, recording him/her eating a Caesar salad....”
Others found obvious flaws with his reasoning, since Tyree wasn’t killed in a secure lunch room and the jailers involved weren’t having a salad when they beat him to death.
The push for additional surveillance equipment came at a time when the Santa Clara jail was embroiled in related scandals involving excessive use of force by guards.
Supervisor Joe Simitian remarked of Tyree’s murder, “[o]nce we start turning over the rocks, we’re going to find some pretty ugly stuff.”
Community activist Shaunn Cartwright testified at a Board of Supervisors hearing about a harrowing event that included a family friend’s son shaving his head so jail guards couldn’t pull him around by his hair.
Others also testified at the hearing, including William Mendoza, who said his mentally ill son had been beaten by guards at the jail. He exclaimed to the Board, “I filed a complaint and nothing was done.... Please, please, please keep everybody safe.”
As reported by the San Jose Mercury News in December 2015, attorneys representing Lubrin, Rodriguez and Farris had sought to bar both the public and press from an initial hearing related to Tyree’s murder, claiming adverse publicity would make it difficult for the three deputies to receive a fair trial.
Despite the best efforts of defense counsel who tried to stop the case from going to trial, in March 2016 a Santa Clara County Superior Court held there was sufficient evidence for the state to proceed with its prosecution of the men.
Defense attorneys had even argued that Tyree most likely killed himself following his interaction with the guards, by jumping off the toilet in his cell.
That assertion, however, was quickly laid to rest when Dr. Joseph O’Hara of the Santa Clara County Medical Examiner-Coroner’s office testified it was not possible. As stated by O’Hara, Tyree had been beaten over nearly his entire body, with some of his injuries, such as a lacerated spleen and liver, being on par with those he would expect to see on people who had been hit by automobiles or flung from roofs. As a result of his injuries, said O’Hara, Tyree’s abdominal cavity filled with roughly half his body’s blood, resulting in his death. The doctor testified that Tyree could not have inflected such extensive injuries on himself.
A trial date of January 23, 2017 has been set for the deputies charged with killing Tyree. If convicted, the three men – each of whom was released from custody on $1.5 million bail and placed on paid administrative leave – face sentences of up to life in prison.
Sources: www.correctionsone.com, www.abc7news.com, www.nbcbayarea.com, www.mercurynews.com, www.sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com
This article originally appeared in Prison Legal News on January 10, 2017.