Friday, March 28, 2008

Martin Cotton Redux

Posted By on Fri, Mar 28, 2008 at 4:05 PM

Between 5:15 p.m. and 7:02 p.m. on August 9, 2007, Martin Cotton’s final hours were recorded unpoetically in the Humboldt County Correctional Facilities observation log:

1715 hours ----------- Admitted – Extremely combative
1738 hours ---------- Moving – OK
1752 hours ---------- Talking / Moving OK
1755 hours ---------- Moving
1807 hours --------- Breathing / Moved
1821 hours --------- On stomach / Breathing
1834 hours --------- On stomach / Breathing
1848 hours --------- On stomach / Breathing
1902 hours --------- Breathing shallow / Medical called

Cotton was pronounced dead at approximately 7:40 p.m after being admitted to St. Joseph Hospital. There is a tape of the almost two hours Cotton spent in the jail cell, but only a few people have seen it, including the County Coroner and the District Attorney, and they don't agree with each other as to whether Cotton most probably died of a self-inflicted head injury.

In a press conference held yesterday at the Humboldt County Courthouse in Eureka, Humboldt County District Attorney Paul Gallegos announced that he would not be pressing charges against any of the officers involved in Cotton’s arrest and detention.

Eureka Police Chief Garr Nelson, also present, said the announcement would "resonate positively" throughout the department. "I believe that my officers acted appropriately … used the appropriate level of force in subduing [Cotton] and taking him into custody," he said, reiterating what has been his stance since the incident occurred. He added that he felt his officers were "appropriately trained" for the situation and said, "We did everything right."

However, there was one important lesson the EPD learned from the incident and that's the need for a more stringent medical evaluation process for arrestees. The EPD has since changed its policy to require that medical attention be sought for people who have engaged in a protracted physical encounter with the police, like Cotton had.

After the jump: Coroner Frank Jager errs.

The overall feel from the meeting was that, though no concrete cause of death could be determined, "the most reasonable conclusion" (Gallegos' words) to be drawn from the available evidence was that Cotton sustained the subdural hematoma that killed him while in his jail cell.

That conflicts with a report in this week’s Journal, in which Humboldt County Coroner Frank Jager argues that Cotton most likely suffered his fatal head injury during one of the two altercations he had engaged in on Aug 9. Jager said it was unlikely Cotton had caused the injury himself because of the "padded nature" of his jail cell.

This was reiterated in the DA’s report, which stated that Jager told Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office Detective Rich Schlesiger that he felt Cotton had not sustained his head injury while in custody at the HCCF. Jager’s conclusion was due in part to an informal consultation he had with Doctor Susan Comfort of the Shasta County Coroner’s office and Doctor Mark Super of the Forensic Medical Group in Fairfield, Calif. Jager told Detective Schlesiger that he had shown the jail video to the doctors and they agreed that it was unlikely Cotton had caused the subderal hematoma himself.

But later, when District Attorney Investigator Wayne Cox asked Jager about the informal consultation, the coroner said the doctors had not actually seen the video – rather, he had merely described it to them over the phone. Investigator Cox later met with Doctor Comfort in person at her office in Redding and showed her the portion of Detective Schlesiger’s report which implied that she thought Cotton had not injured himself fatally while in custody at HCCF. "I never gave an opinion on where he sustained the injury," she told Investigator Cox, according to the DA’s report.

Gallegos, who has watched the video of Cotton acting "very disturbed" in the cell and hitting his head, doesn’t have as much faith in the cell’s padding as Jager does. "There is padding on the cell," Gallegos said," but not such that if you were slamming your head it would prevent the injuries that Cotton had." Gallegos compared the padding to a car seatbelt, which doesn’t ensure that someone will survive an accident.

Still, the DA’s report didn’t find enough evidence to prove any one theory about what caused Cotton’s head injury "beyond a reasonable doubt."

This week’s Journal article, "Who Killed Martin Cotton?," relied heavily on the words and opinions of Humboldt County Coroner Frank Jager. I stated in the article that Cotton was placed in a fully padded cell. That was based on information Jager gave me Monday. Yesterday, I took a tour of the cell for myself and discovered that it was not, in fact, fully padded. Rather, the floor and a partition that blocks the toilet from the view of passing guards is covered with, what I was told by a corrections officer, is 1/4-inch-thick rubber. I touched the padding myself. It’s similar to the squishy rubber material used for playgrounds to lighten a child’s fall – it is by no means plush.

The cell Cotton was placed in is known as a "sobering cell." Unlike a "safety cell," which has rubber-coated walls, floors and a recessed toilet, the sobering cell has light blue cinderblock walls and a metal toilet. When I asked the corrections officer why the walls weren’t padded in the sobering cell, he explained that only the floor is padded to prevent inmates from hitting their heads if, in their inebriated state, they happen to slip and fall. Why wasn’t a visibly agitated Cotton, too combative even to be medically screened, placed in a fully padded safety cell? That’s a question for Sheriff Gary Philp, who is unlikely to speak on the subject now since earlier last week Cotton’s family filed a wrongful death and civil rights violation claim against city and county agencies.

When reached today at his office, Coroner Jager admitted that when we last spoke he was under the misimpression that the cell Cotton had been placed in was fully padded. He had assumed this from information provided to him by the Sheriff’s Office, and from the video he'd seen. He admitted, though, that he had never visited HCCF cell #N144.

At the press conference on Thursday, Gallegos described his recollection of the Cotton video but he could not say for sure whether Cotton had hit his head on any non-padded portion of the approximately seven foot square jail cell. There is certainly one way to dispel any doubt about the matter and that is to release the tape -- at least to Cotton’s family, if not to the public, for closer inspection.

Until that’s done, it seems hard not to agree with Cotton’s aunt, Lynda Rumburg, who was quoted in today’s Times-Standard: "Why wouldn't they want to release the tape?" she asked. "To me, that tells me they have something to hide."

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Japhet Weeks

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