AP NEWS

WRONGFUL DEATH

October 1, 2018

The same year Eric Garner died while being subdued by the New York City Police, protesting, “I can’t breathe,” a man died as he was restrained in Harris County Jail calling out the exact same words.

Both incidents set off wrongful-death cases filed on behalf of the victims’ families. But while New York City reached a settlement with Garner’s family for $5.9 million, the case of 38-year-old Kenneth Christopher Lucas is still wending its way through the court system four years after his death. Late last week, a judge decided Lucas’ family will get its wrongful-death case heard during a trial.

“The court found that the county itself will have to stand trial for its unconstitutional and dangerous training,” said attorney Jeff Edwards, who is representing the family. “What’s important about that is the county can’t pretend that this was an isolated act.”

U.S. District Court Judge Sim Lake stated in a comprehensive opinion filed Friday that the Lucas family provided sufficient evidence to move to trial.

Lucas had been at the Harris County Jail for less than a week on a child custody charge when several sheriff’s deputies entered his cell on Feb. 17, 2014, after he refused to hand over a piece of metal he had sharpened after breaking a smoke detector. Lucas was handcuffed and placed face-down on a gurney while an officer sat on his back, restraining him.

He could be heard in a 30-minute video of the ordeal warning deputies that he was going to pass out and pleading to be released. Lucas’ death was caused by “sudden cardiac death due to hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease during physical restraint,” according to a ruling by the Harris County medical examiner.

The wrongful death lawsuit seeks damages under federal civil rights laws and under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The complaint names Harris County and seven of the officers involved in the incident and alleges the officers used excessive force against Lucas and failed to take into account his “serious medical conditions.”

However, Lake’s memorandum stated that there was not enough evidence to show Lucas was a qualified individual with a disability, or that the county discriminated against him because of his disability.

In addition to making allegations that officers used excessive force, the complaint alleges the county is also to blame.

“What happened was the county trained these officers to act in an unconstitutional way,” Edwards said.

He called such training “unconscionable” in light of a 2009 memorandum from the Department of Justice outlining the findings of an investigation into the Harris County Jail. In the memorandum, the Department of Justice expressed “serious concerns” about the use of force at the jail.

“Indeed, we found a significant number of incidents where staff used inappropriate force techniques,” the memorandum stated.

“They said they would stop it,” Edwards said. “And they went on doing the same thing.”

In the opinion filed on Friday, Lake wrote that plaintiffs have raised genuine issues that the violation of Lucas’ constitutional rights may have resulted from county policy.

“Plaintiffs cite the deposition testimony of Sheriff (Adrian) Garcia that the DCCT members followed their training and carried it out as instructed,” Lake wrote, “not just by placing Lucas face down on the gurney in a basic hogtie position, but also by ignoring Lucas’s pleas for help until he was ‘entirely incapacitated,’ and that he knew restraining detainees in a basic hogtie position was dangerous due to the risk of positional asphyxia, which could result in death.”

In 2015, the Harris County grand jury declined to criminally indict the five deputies, a supervisor, a lieutenant and a videographer involved in the incident. An internal investigation by the sheriff’s office also cleared employees of any wrongdoing.

Then-sheriff Garcia said Lucas’ death prompted changes in jail procedures, including that medical staff is now stationed outside a cell when an inmate is being forcefully removed.

“When life is lost, I think there’s a whole lot of things that go wrong,” Garcia said at a news conference at the time. “We don’t get to pick the inmates that come to us and the medical condition they’re in.”

rebecca.schuetz@chron.com

twitter.com/raschuetz

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