By SARAH MASLIN NIR, The New York Times
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — In a rare step, the sheriff of Santa Clara County on Thursday arrested and filed murder charges against three corrections deputies who work for her, after the discovery last week that a mentally ill inmate had bled to death in his cell as a result of a blunt force trauma, according to the local coroner’s office.
The sheriff, Laurie Smith, said that the victim, Michael James Tyree, 31, had been found unresponsive in Santa Clara County’s Main Jail on Aug. 27 during a routine cell check. Mr. Tyree had been serving a brief sentence for misdemeanor drug possession and petty theft in the jail, according to the sheriff’s office. The deputies — Matthew Farris, Jereh Lubrin and Rafael Rodriguez — were arrested Thursday morning after a report from Dr. Joseph O’Hara, a forensic pathologist with the Santa Clara County Medical Examiner’s Office, said that Mr. Tyree had been beaten to death.
“As sheriff, it is my sworn duty and the sworn duty of every deputy and commander to follow every lead, no matter where that lead takes the investigation to bring those we believe guilty to justice,” Sheriff Smith said in an email.
The arrests, made less than a week after Mr. Tyree was discovered naked and coated in feces and vomit in his cell, are a departure from the typically drawn-out process that enmesh law enforcement officials when members of their own are suspected of being involved in a crime. At a news conference on Thursday, Sheriff Smith made plain she was taking steps avoid that morass.
“I am compelled again to say it pains me and every member of the sheriff’s office and every member within our law enforcement,” Sheriff Smith said. “Because those who are sworn to protect and serve lose their moral compass and commit criminal acts.”
The three men were relatively new to the force; Mr. Lubrin, the longest serving, had been a Santa Clara corrections officer for a little more than two and a half years.
The autopsy of Mr. Tyree’s body “revealed multiple cutaneous blunt-force injuries such as contusions, abrasions and lacerations in addition to lacerations of the liver and spleen with significant collection of blood in the abdominal space,” Mr. O’Hara of the coroner’s office said in an email.
The speed and openness surrounding the arrest of the corrections officers is highly unusual in such cases, said Dr. Bandy X. Lee, a professor of psychiatry at Yale University and specialist in violence at prisons and jails. “The level of transparency is quite exceptional,” Dr. Lee said. given “a culture of cover-up collusions, even between police departments and correction officers in the past.”
Dr. Lee worked at Rikers Island Jail, which has been rocked over the past year by revelations of endemic abuse of mentally ill and other inmates, who have been brutalized and even killed by corrections staff, who are rarely penalized.
Mentally ill inmates “are certainly more vulnerable to physical brutality, verbal brutality and punitive measures,” Dr. Lee said.
Mr. Tyree was supposed to have been at the county jail only temporarily. He was awaiting a bed to become free at a specialized holding facility for the mentally ill, run by Momentum for Mental Health.
Don Specter, the executive director of the Berkeley, Calif.-based Prison Law Office,which fights to protect prisoners from things like excessive force by guards, said that Sheriff Smith’s move “should send a very strong message to other corrections officers working in jails or prisons, that the rest of their careers — and possibly their liberty — is at risk if they do things like this.”
A decade ago, a grand jury declined to indict several Santa Clara corrections officers after a bipolar inmate at the county jail was sent into a vegetative state from which he later died after being carried to a psychiatric ward with a blanket over his head, which cut off his oxygen. Those officers were fired, but successfully sued to regain their jobs.
At the sheriff’s news conference, Paula Canny, the lawyer for Mr. Tyree’s family, said that Mr. Tyree had “died as a result of blunt-force trauma, sadly administered to him by those who were charged, duty-bound, and took an oath to protect him.”
Ms. Canny thanked the sheriff’s office for the speed of the arrests. Her action, Ms. Canny said, will help demonstrate that an inmate is still “a person of value,” she said, adding: “Michael was somebody’s brother, somebody’s son, somebody’s cousin, somebody’s nephew.”