Sheriff Joe Faces Retrial for Death of Mentally Ill Man

Posted December 4, 2012 in Personal Injury by

Photo: Gage Skidmore

Notorious Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio will face a second civil trial next year over the death of a mentally ill man who had been arrested by Maricopa County deputies less than two weeks before he died of a heart attack.

The suit contends that law enforcement agents mistreated Eric Vogel in 2001 when they tore his clothes off after arresting him on suspicion of burglary in order to dress him in Arpaio’s famous pink underpants, standard wear for inmates in his jails. Vogel spent a week in a psychiatric unit before he was bailed out, then shortly thereafter was confronted by police after he was a passenger in a car accident in a car driven by his mother.

Vogel ran from the scene for five miles, then died of a heart attack the next day. His family sued the Sheriff for violating civil rights laws, including the Americans With Disabilities Act.

A district court originally ruled in favor of Arpaio, but the judge made a number of highly unusual moves that led the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to call for a retrial. A central part of the suit is the pink underwear that Arpaio forces all his inmates to wear. Ostensibly, the policy is in place because the standard white underwear was being stolen, although the sheriff has suggested in speeches that he really does it to belittle the prisoners.


Pink Underwear Disallowed

Joel Robbins

Vogel, who was 36 at the time of his death, had spent most of his life secluded in his mother’s home. He emerged in 2001 and was promptly confronted by police who were looking for a burglar in the neighborhood. A struggle ensued during which Vogel initially told police, “Kill me,” then said he needed to see the president. When he was taken to jail, he believed he was at the World Trade Center and was getting messages from satellites.

“He went in and was supposed to go right up to the mental health unit, so they knew from the very beginning that he was mentally ill and needed to have some special treatment,” says Joel Robbins of Robbins & Curtin, one of the plaintiff’s attorneys.

Nevertheless, before Vogel was transferred to the psychiatric unit, deputies forcibly stripped him down and put the pink boxers on him, while he screamed about being raped.

During the original trial, Yavon Wagner, Vogel’s sister, was barred from testifying about her brother’s state of mind after his arrest. Several experts’ testimonies were also banned, as well as the words “rape,” “gang rape,” and “pink underwear.”

“It was pretty clear the plaintiff thought pink underwear was part of a process of raping him,” Robbins says. “He was mentally ill and probably having illusions. In his delusional state he believed he was being sexually assaulted.”


Cultural Context

In another bizarre move, the judge decided to disallow Robbins’ closing rebuttal at the last minute, after he had already told him he could have a half hour for it. “Then the judge comes back and says I decided to not give you any rebuttal,” says Robbins. “You took away something I was planning on based on something you’d already told me.”

In March the 9th Circuit ordered a retrial. “Indisputably, Wagner could have testified at trial about the impact the jail incident had on Vogel, how his mood was following the incident, how disturbed he seemed, and even what he thought happened to him during the incident, all without putting inadmissible hearsay before the jury,” the court’s opinion read.

As for the underwear, the opinion suggested that the retrial could block the Sheriff’s usage of it, as it could be considered a punishment with no legal justification. “The county offers no penalogical reason, indeed no explanation whatsoever for its jail’s odd choice,” the court wrote. “Given the cultural context, it is a fair inference that the color is chosen to symbolize a loss of masculine identity and power, to stigmatize the male prisoners as feminine.”

Arpaio asked the court to reconsider its order, but the 9th Circuit ruled again this month that the retrial would in fact go forward next year.

Do you think the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office is justified in forcing prisoners to wear pink underwear while in custody? Share your opinion in the comments below.

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