Davis jail death plaintiff blasts secrecy and 'callousness'

Friday , January 05, 2018 - 5:00 AM

MARK SHENEFELT, Standard-Examiner Staff

SALT LAKE CITY — Their lawsuit targets only the Davis County Jail, but Cynthia Farnham-Stella and her attorneys hope it will catalyze improvements to prevent inmate deaths throughout Utah.

“My daughter, I hope, will be the last one,” said Farnham-Stella, mother of Heather Miller, who died after a crushing fall at the Davis jail on Dec. 21, 2016. 

The Reno, Nevada, woman and her attorney Tad Draper held a news conference Thursday at The Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City to detail the civil rights suit they filed against Davis County, Sheriff Todd Richardson, and two jail medical employees.

RELATED: Lawsuit: Traumatic death in Davis jail result of civil rights violation

RELATED: AG's Davis jail death investigation reveals possible missteps, lack of urgency

Draper said the case centers on a U.S. Supreme Court precedent that says incarcerated people have a constitutional guarantee of adequate medical care.

The suit faults a jail nurse for not checking Miller’s vital signs after she fell from a top bunk. Jailers moved her to a cell without a top bunk, where she was discovered unresponsive almost three hours later. A coroner’s report said she had a severed spleen and suffered catastrophic internal bleeding.

“This is a human being,” Draper said. “If a dog had fallen off the bunk, they would have taken it to the vet.”

According to the most recent federal statistics, from 2015, Utah leads the nation in per-capita jail deaths. Documents collected from sheriff’s offices around the state show there were at least 24 in 2016.

RELATED: Investigating jail deaths in Northern Utah

Draper and Farnham-Stella hit hard at Utah’s jail management standards, which are held out of public view by a private consultant and the Utah Sheriffs’ Association.

“It’s so secretive, no one will tell you anything,” Draper said.

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The U.S. District Court suit, filed Wednesday, requests an injunction requiring the county to implement strong, transparent policies and procedures that guarantee inmates adequate medical care, especially the level of emergency care that Miller, 28, needed.

Open standards and better accountability may spread “if we can make a difference in Davis County,” Draper said.

Farnham-Stella said she wants jails to be made to “lose their callousness.”

“All I know is they left (Miller) to bleed to death,” she said. “They don’t want to talk about it. Everybody wants to cover their tail.”

Davis County officials have declined to discuss details of Miller’s case, citing medical and privacy laws and litigation concerns. Richardson and County Attorney Troy Rawlings did not respond to messages Wednesday seeking comment on the lawsuit.

At least two other civil suits over deaths have been filed against Northern Utah jails in recent years:

  • A Bosnian picked up by immigration agents died in the Weber County Jail on March 20, 2011. Amra Miletic’s family sued in federal court, alleging the jail staff "exhibited a shocking degree of deliberate indifference and reckless disregard" for her medical needs as she slowly bled to death. A federal judge dismissed the suit in 2016.

  • Marion Herrera, 40, was found unresponsive in a medical cell at the Weber County Jail on May 22, 2016. A state medical examiner’s report attributed her death to narcotics withdrawal and dehydration. A suit filed by her family blames the death on alleged negligence by the defendants in failing to ensure Herrera stayed hydrated during her 3 ½-day jail stay. The case remains active.

Federal court records show at least 13 other suits over medical care have been filed against the Weber and Davis jails since 2010. Eleven have been dismissed and two remain active.

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt and like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/SEmarkshenefelt.


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