Elliott Williams spent five days dying with a broken neck on the floor of a Tulsa jail cell in 2011 and received no medical care, a death a top sheriff’s official called “inhumane.”
But it would take a social media spat over plagiarism involving media outlets Tuesday to bring national attention to his case.
By late afternoon, a video showing the paralyzed Williams dying while jailers and medical staff at the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office placed food and water just out of his reach had been viewed more than 60,000 times. The story received hundreds of comments on social media and was the No. 1 topic trending on Twitter for several hours before being bumped to No. 2 after the New York primary.
Williams’ death in the jail in 2011 received a fair amount of local attention, though release of the jail video was underplayed in some local media outlets.
Williams, a veteran with no criminal record, was distraught over the breakup of his marriage and suffering a mental breakdown. Owasso police were called to the hotel where he was staying on Oct. 21, 2011. He began eating dirt and repeatedly asked police to shoot him.
Rather than wait for a mental health team they’d called to arrive, Owasso police pepper sprayed Williams and arrested him. In an Owasso city holding cell, Williams removed his clothing, hid under a bench, screamed and barked like a dog.
Williams was taken to the Tulsa Jail, where he refused to comply with orders and Owasso officers (still in the pre-booking area) “took him to the ground by his head and neck,” reports state.
Though he could not stand after that and said he thought his neck was broken, Williams was left on the floor of his jail cell for 51 hours. Records show detention officers and medical staff said they believed he was faking paralysis.
At one point, after Williams had lost bowel control, detention officers placed him unattended on the floor of a running shower for 45 minutes. He died hours after a nurse had asked the jail’s physician, Phillip Washburn, to see if Williams should be sent to a hospital.
The sheriff’s office asked Washburn why he didn’t heed warnings from a medical resident that Williams should be sent to a hospital.
“I swear I do not remember that! If it happened, it was my bad,” Washburn told investigators.
Later, when asked about Williams’ death in a deposition, Washburn said: “People just die sometimes.”
With the high-profile trial of former Reserve Deputy Robert Bates beginning, reporters are taking a closer look at problems in the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office.
At midnight Tuesday, The Daily Beast posted a story about Williams’ case that also touched on the trial underway for Bates. The story included newly released, disturbing video showing Williams’ arrest and treatment by Owasso officers before his death.
The story — headlined “Cops taunted black veteran as he died” — was then picked up by the New York Daily News early Tuesday.
Civil rights activist-turned journalist Shaun King used the Williams’ case as an example in an editorial about how jails are not equipped to handle people who are mentally ill or injured or, as in this case, both.
Editors at The Daily Beast quickly noticed King’s story failed to credit their website and even contained two paragraphs from reporter Kate Briquelet’s story, used verbatim without attribution.
— Justin Miller (@justinjm1) April 19, 2016
Others piled on, alleging that King had also copied and pasted portions of stories from other outlets.
King took to Twitter with an angry defense in several Tweets.
By in large, if you think I plagiarized a damn thing, you can kiss my ass. Feel free to quote that. Those are my words too.
— Shaun King (@ShaunKing) April 19, 2016
By Tuesday evening, the New York Daily News had fired a senior editor, saying the editor had removed attribution to other media outlets from three of King’s columns. (King provided a time-stamped copy of his original story to back it up.)
In a statement to CNN Money, Editor Jim Rich said: “These mistakes are unacceptable and the editor in question has been fired. Because of the recurring nature of this editor’s specific mistakes, we are currently reviewing all of the columns he edited.”
— Dylan Byers (@DylanByers) April 19, 2016
By the day’s end, other reporters were coming to King’s defense, noting journalists should be far more careful before accusing each other of plagiarism. (It’s usually a career-ending accusation if proven true.)
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) April 19, 2016
As an aside, Dylan Goforth and I are familiar with what it feels like to be unfairly targeted in a story implying we’ve done something wrong. We’re still waiting for our apology, one year after the story we wrote has been proven accurate.
The whole Daily Beast-Shaun King controversy left attorney Dan Smolen bemused.
He’s been trying in vain to gain national attention for Williams’ case for years. Smolen has filed a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of Williams’ estate, one of more than a dozen such lawsuits pending against the sheriff’s office.
Smolen noted that when the horrific video of Williams’ death was released, “No one ran the story nationally. And no one cared. … Now they’re fighting over who broke the story.”
(Though The Daily Beast tagged its excellent story “exclusive,” local news outlets did report on the case years ago. )
“Without at all trying to devalue the significance of the Freddie Grey situation, that became a national outrage when his neck became broken and they denied him medical treatment for 45 minutes and six officers were charged,” Smolen said. “Well, here’s a video tape of what happened to Elliott Williams for 51 hours.”