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Settlement reached in lawsuit over man who died in New London police custody

January 3, 2019

New London — A settlement is pending that would resolve a 250,000 deductible, city officials said.

Gilbert died on Oct. 4, 2014, following a violent struggle with officers after escaping from his holding cell at police headquarters.

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruled Gilbert’s death a homicide caused in part by the confrontation with police, who struggled to restrain him and used a Taser, pepper spray and at one point wrapped a towel over his face to keep him from biting officers, police reports show.

The official cause of death was “physical altercation (restraint, electric shock, pepper spray) during acute psychosis complicated (by) sickle cell hemoglobinopathy.”

New London State’s Attorney Michael Regan found police officers were justified in their use of force, calling their actions necessary to restrain Gilbert from harming himself or officers and to prevent his escape.

The lawsuit filed in 2016 by Hartford attorney Jamaal Johnson on behalf of Gilbert’s aunt, Albertha Fletcher, and his mother, Donna Smith, named the city, 10 police officers, Lawrence + Memorial Hospital and an emergency room physician as defendants.

Johnson on Wednesday declined comment “out of respect and privacy of the family.” He previously has argued that Gilbert’s medical condition warranted treatment, not imprisonment.

The lawsuit alleges excessive force by officers and negligence by the L+M emergency room physician, Deirdre Cronin-Vorih, for allegedly not performing tests necessary to determine why Gilbert was in an altered mental state. Gilbert was released back into police custody after a hospital evaluation on the night of his death.

During months of arguments before U.S. District Judge Michael P. Shea, attorneys for the defendants successfully argued against many of the claims. As a result, just a handful police officers remained a part of the suit that would have gone to trial later this month.

In a summary judgement dated Sept. 25, 2018, Judge Shea removed the hospital, the city and several officers from the suit. Shea ruled questions remained, however, about claims of excessive use of force against four officers when Gilbert was being restrained at police headquarters.

The remaining four officers named in the suit are Richard Cable, Wayne Neff, Chris White and Christopher Bunkley.

A surveillance video of the incident at the police department headquarters “demonstrates that after being subdued — in part with Taser darts — Mr. Gilbert was held in a prone position with various officers leaning their weight on him for several minutes before the arrival of the emergency medical personnel,” Shea wrote. “By 2:45 a.m., Mr. Gilbert is held in place on the floor with legs pointing toward the holding cell door, despite the Police Defendant’s claim that Mr. Gilbert is resisting after this point, he does not appear to move his legs again before being placed on the stretcher.”

Shea wrote that “the evidence on the record raises genuine dispute of material fact concerning whether the officers ignored Mr. Gilbert’s protestations that he could not breathe due to his positioning as they carried out these actions.”

Attorney Elliot B. Spector, who, along with David C. Yale of the law firm Hassett & George, defended the police officers in the case, said officers acted appropriately. The case was resolved with a “reasonable amount of money” to avoid a trial, Spector said.

Spector called Gilbert a sympathetic figure whose illness most likely led to his death, “a bad incident all the way around.”

New London City Risk Manager Paul Gills said that under the circumstances, officers “exercised restraint” and were “extremely concerned with Mr. Gilbert’s safety and well-being.” He called Gilbert’s death an “unfortunate outcome.”

Gills said the City Council would hear details of the settlement and likely vote at a meeting scheduled for Monday. Defendants in the case are expected to report to U.S Judge Magistrate Donna F. Martinez on Jan. 9 on the progress of the settlement.

Gilbert had arrived in New London from Canada on Oct. 2, 2014, for a surprise visit with his aunt, who lived on Garfield Avenue.

On the morning of Oct. 3, 2014, neighbors reported a suspicious man, later identified as Gilbert, acting strangely, waving his arms and speaking in tongues. Police spoke with Gilbert at 6:32 a.m., found him to be cooperative and took no action.

At 7 p.m. that same evening, police were called to the scene of a reported carjacking. Witnesses said Gilbert had jumped through the passenger-side window of a car stopped at a red light on Williams Street. He was speaking gibberish and making stabbing motions at the driver.

Police arrived and shot Gilbert with a Taser, taking him to L+M Hospital to have the Taser prongs removed. Gilbert was uncooperative at the hospital and in a state of delirium, reports show, talking to himself and hallucinating.

Gilbert was discharged from the hospital at 10 p.m. and taken back to police headquarters. At 11 p.m. that night, officers entered Gilbert’s cell after he was seen twisting a pair of jeans and attempting to attach them to a vent.

Gilbert lunged at one officer, tried to grab a Taser, escaped to the booking area, threw items at officers and attempted to put one officer in a choke hold, police reports show. During the ensuing struggle, one officer fired a Taser and “drive stunned” Gilbert twice. It took at least five officers to place Gilbert in handcuffs, the police report shows.

Gilbert died on the way to the hospital.

g.smith@theday.com

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