Sheriff Joe Arpaio Sued Over Beating Death of Inmate

Posted October 30, 2012 in Government by

Photo: Gage Skidmore

Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Ariz., is facing more legal trouble in the form of a lawsuit filed Oct. 23 by the family of Ernest Atencio, who died in jail while under the custody of the sheriff’s deputies. The 44-year-old passed away after he suffered a heart attack while being beaten and attacked with a stun gun by deputies and police last December 16.

Atencio had been arrested for kicking a woman’s door in Phoenix, after officers had already encountered him once previously that night acting strangely at a convenience store.

In video footage from the jail, Atencio, a veteran of the 1991 Gulf War, can be seen getting piled on and beaten by at least ten law enforcement officers in a booking room. A video from another camera shows him dragged into a cell, stripped and left to die, face down and naked on the floor.

Somewhere between eight and 15 minutes after he was stripped and left alone (depending on whom you believe), deputies returned, found him still prone and performed CPR. He clung to life in a hospital for five days before his family decided to discontinue life support.

The deceased man’s family is suing the sheriff, as well as the Phoenix police and other entities. Earlier this year the family filed a $20 million notice of claim against the Sheriff’s Office, a precursor to suing. The suit itself doesn’t specify the amount in damages they will seek.

Atencio had a history of schizophrenia. The lawsuit alleges that the deputies knew he had a mental illness from previous encounters, and mocked him as they checked him into jail and took his mugshot, while failing to provide him proper medical treatment.

“Prior to December 15, 2011, both Maricopa County and Sheriff Arpaio were aware of a long history of deliberate indifference to the provision of medical care to those in the county’s jails and ‘long-overdue, constitutionally required corrections that needed to be made as quickly as possible’,” the lawsuit claims, citing previous decisions against the sheriff. “The Court further found that, ‘the intake screening [at the jails] often does not capture basic and necessary information from detainees, including an adequate history from those suffering from chronic diseases’.”



Patterns of Abuse

Michael C. Manning

The Sheriff’s Office, which previously called Atencio combative and blamed him for the altercation, issued no comment on the litigation. “The Sheriff’s Office has already commented on our factual review at the time of Atencio’s arrest,” the statement said. “We will not comment pending our review of the complaints raised today.”

The video footage doesn’t appear to show any evidence of Atencio fighting back against the police onslaught. “You never know, particularly with a person who is [bipolar and] off his medications, but it is clear that Marty wasn’t threatening anybody,” plaintiff’s attorney Michael C. Manning, of Stinson Morrison Hecker, told the Phoenix New Times. “Clearly confused, but he didn’t swing his arms, didn’t kick his legs or feet, didn’t try to head-butt anybody, including fellow inmates or detention officers. He appeared throughout the entire episode to be non-threatening.”

Manning has tangled with America’s toughest sheriff before. He won $8.25 million from the office for the 1996 extrajudicial electrocution of Scott Norberg in the custody of Arpaio’s jailers, has worked with the New Times on their suit against the sheriff for false arrest of the paper’s CEO and executive editor, and won victories in several other wrongful death suits. 

The strategy of law enforcement blaming Atencio for provoking the fight is all too familiar, the attorney noted. “[The Sheriff’s Office] never accurately states the circumstances when they first come out with their spin,” he said. “This is right out of their Norberg-Agster-Crenshaw [wrongful death suit] playbook. It’s always that the inmate started a ruckus and was combative and superhuman in a drug-induced strength.”

Arpaio has faced dozens of lawsuits over his twenty-year reign, from wrongful death to racial profiling claims to retaliation charges against his employees. The 80-year-old is standing for reelection this November in a three-way race and currently has about a four-point lead in the polls.

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