While the public was digesting Monday’s monumental $10.2 million verdict against Tulsa County in the jail death of Elliott Williams, attorney Clark Brewster was working another federal court case.
What that meant for Brewster, who had represented Tulsa County during the nearly month-long Williams trial, was that he had little time to dwell on the result. What that meant for the public was that they didn’t hear his thoughts on the verdict.
In a Monday night interview with The Frontier, Clark Brewster reflected on the Williams trial, saying he was “100 percent sure” it would be reversed on appeal. “Until it is,” he said, the outcome will make it more likely that smaller jails across the nation will become targets for lawsuits.
“There’s no question that this will be used … against smaller jails who can’t provide that kind of medical care or mental health care,” Brewster said. “This is going to make them all sitting ducks for lawsuits.”
Williams died in 2011 after spending parts of five days languishing on the floor of a Tulsa Jail cell. His neck was broken, though jailers and jail medical staff claimed they believed he was faking, and he was not able to reach the food and drink that was left just out of his reach.
Following the verdict, Kevin Williams — Elliott Williams’ brother — said he was satisfied with the jury’s decision, but no amount of money would bring his brother back. He said he believes someone should be criminally charged for his brother’s death.
“So, I’m not satisfied fully, but I’m content with the decision,” he said.
“The decision” was to award the Williams’ family $10 million in compensatory damages, an amount believed to possibly be the largest wrongful death judgment in Oklahoma history. The jury also levied $250,000 in punitive damages against former sheriff Stanley Glanz, an amount he will have to pay out of pocket.
The judgments would only be paid should the verdict stand following the inevitable lengthy appeal process. Brewster told The Frontier he has a “high confidence” that the verdict “will not stand on appeal.”
That, of course, is not an unusual position for an attorney who just suffered a high-profile defeat in a civil case.
“We have high regard for (U.S. District) Judge (John) Dowdell,” Brewster said. Dowdell, a former college football player and attorney who was confirmed as a federal judge in 2012, presided over the Williams trial.
But still, Brewster said, he has issues with both the jury instructions and evidentiary rulings during the trial.
“The jury instructions were just an invitation to a plaintiff’s verdict,” he said. “We take issue with that.”
He also took issue with prior news reports that had been written in the nearly six years since Williams died.
At the time of his death, there was little public interest in Williams’ life or case. But as civil rights stories gained more and more attention across the country, national outlets — like the Daily Beast, or even the New York Daily News — began to report on what had happened. Local interest peaked over the last two years as corruption at the Sheriff’s Office was reported on heavily.
Throughout the trial, the plaintiff’s attorneys placed the blame for the military veteran’s death squarely on the backs of the Sheriff’s Office. Brewster tried to shift culpability to Correctional Health Companies Inc., the company that provided medical care at the jail at the time Williams died.
That company settled with the Williams family years ago for an undisclosed amount, something Tulsa County’s lawyers seemed reluctant to do.
“Listen, I’m a plaintiffs-hearted lawyer,” Brewster said. “I would have been feeling the same way as any plaintiff lawyer. (Williams’) medical care was deficient, but I was not even able to let the jury know that we accepted that proposition. We know it was negligent, but (the medical provider) already settled with (the Williams family.) The judge would not even let (the jury) know that.
“If the jury knew that, they would know that we held (CHC) accountable. I think the jury was making an award without any concept or understanding that the medical provider had already settled.”
Regardless, having now suffered back-to-back defeats in civil rights cases (a female inmate won a case last year after alleging she’d been raped in the jail), Tulsa County and its attorneys must turn their eyes to the future and to the many other civil rights cases pending against the jail.
The first of the pending cases scheduled for trial was filed on behalf of a mentally disabled woman who alleges she was raped in the jail’s medical unit by another inmate. The woman had gone to the medical unit seeking treatment and was placed in a holding cell.
The woman was left shackled in the holding cell and jail staff neglected to lock the door. When detention staff left to respond to an emergency in another part of the jail, the woman was raped by a male inmate, according to the lawsuit.
Jessie Earl Johnson, the male inmate accused of raping the woman, had been labeled an “extreme escape risk” by TCSO but was given trustee status in the jail.
TCSO has denied responsibility in the case and pointed to the fact that the woman recanted her story after charges were filed. However, in an order denying TCSO’s motion for summary judgment, Dowdell notes that the defendants’ own expert believes the mentally disabled woman was raped.
“Her recantation occurred in the course of an interview by TCSO deputies, without her counsel present, after this litigation had been filed,” the order states.