Doctors: Williams’ death in jail was preventable

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In a courtroom sketch, attorney Clark Brewster, left, sits at a table with Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado. Sketch by Evelyn Petroski

Elliott Williams’ death unquestionably could have been prevented if he would have received the proper medical care, a medical expert testified Friday.

“There’s no question in my mind that his death could have been prevented,” said Dr. Zee Khan, a Tulsa-based spinal surgeon. Khan’s testimony came during the eighth day of testimony during a civil trial over Williams’ 2011 death in the jail.

An autopsy determined Williams likely died from complications of a broken neck and also had a pattern of dehydration.

Khan said it’s likely the injury worsened and Williams either suffocated or had a heart attack.p

Two medical experts brought by the plaintiffs testified Friday morning on the eighth day of a civil trial in federal court on the quality of health care Williams received while he was in Tulsa’s jail.

[Read The Frontier’s coverage of the Elliott Williams trial.]

Both experts said they believe Williams death could have easily been avoided if he received adequate medical care.

Khan, the first expert to take the stand, testified about how Williams might have broken his neck and became paralyzed.

Exactly how Williams broke his neck is unclear. An Owasso police officer slammed Williams to the floor by his head and neck in the jail’s booking area.

Another inmate said he believed Williams rammed his head into his cell door. However, defense attorney Dan Smolen has questioned why that claim did not surface until two months after Williams’ death, Oct. 27, 2011.

Elliott Williams died in 2011 after breaking his neck in the Tulsa Jail and receiving no medical care, food or water for days. Photo courtesy NewsOn6

Williams might have been predisposed to a more serious neck injury as a result of Owasso police slamming him on the ground, but that action was unlikely to cause Williams’ paralysis, Khan said.

The fact that Williams stood up and walked after the incident indicates his spinal cord wasn’t damaged, he said.

After being put in the holding cell where Williams was said to have rammed his head into the door, he was unable to move.

When asked whether Khan understood how Williams was removed from holding cell No. 10, Khan said Williams was taken out on a gurney, which was “absolutely not appropriate.”

Williams’ neck and spine should have been stabilized to prevent further injury, Khan said. Jail staff should have been alerted to the possibility of a spinal injury when they found Williams had defecated on himself.

Records and testimony indicate jail staff called a medical emergency when they found Williams in the cell.

Khan said upon first seeing the emergency called he was pleased until he learned it was only signaled because Williams had defecated and urinated on himself and was not as a result of his injury.

After he was found, Williams was dumped off of the gurney and into a shower by Capt. Tommy Fike and Sgt. Doug Hinshaw, causing his head to strike the concrete floor, according to records and testimony.

Khan was critical of how Williams was put into the shower because it was another example of Williams’ head and neck not being stabilized.

“If someone has a broken leg, you don’t let it flop around,” Khan said. He said a broken neck is the same.

Asked whether he believed Williams being dragged into a medical cell on a suicide blanket was appropriate, Khan said no.

“You don’t need a medical degree to know something broken needs minimal motion to prevent further pain,” he said.

A video depicts detention staff placed a cup of water at William’s’ feet, out of his reach.

“Could Mr. Williams grab the glass?” asked Don Smolen, an attorney for Williams’ estate.

“No sir,” Khan replied. “He may have wanted to, but his body would not have followed his desires or commands.”

Khan was critical that Williams was never given a physical examination to assess his injuries. Detention and medical staff thought Williams was faking his paralysis.

Williams is never seen moving in the video showing him lying in a medical cell, Khan testified. And if he had been faking, Williams would have at least moved in his sleep, he said.

During cross-examination, Clark Brewster, an attorney representing the Sheriff’s Office, argued the video doesn’t show everything that occurred.

Brewster has attempted to cast doubt on the video’s reliability. He said the video software that captured Williams’ death was only recently installed when Williams entered the jail.

Brewster has implied the video failed to capture times when Williams was eating, drinking and receiving attention from staff.

Khan said he reviewed the video given to him and didn’t see any indication Williams moved, stood up, ate or drank anything.

While the video played for the court, Williams’ sister, who has sat watching the trial each day, began crying and stepped out of the room.

Brewster said Williams was visited by a jail doctor the day he died. The doctor reported Williams was talking and moving.

Khan said people have different definitions of moving. Though Williams could move his arms slightly, they were not functional enough to allow him to feed himself

When reminded medical staff were responsible for caring for Williams, Khan said he also places blame on detention staff. He said they didn’t need a medical degree to recognize something was wrong with Williams.

However, Khan acknowledged he didn’t believe jail staff acted maliciously by not ensuring Williams had proper medical care.

Dr. Scott Allen, another expert brought by the plaintiffs who conducts jail medical audits for the federal government, also testified to the care Williams received.

Allen said the problems he saw in Williams’ health care appeared to be systemic in Tulsa’s jail. He called the care Williams had “woefully inadequate.” He said jail and medical staff acted “cruel and inhumane.”

Allen told the court it was “disturbing” that staff assumed Williams was faking his condition without doing their due diligence of ruling out the possibility he was actually injured.

The plan of simply monitoring Williams when he potentially had a life-threatening injury was “reckless,” Allen said.

“If someone called a bomb threat to the courthouse and police didn’t do their normal investigation and said ‘Let’s just see if it blows up,’ That’s how reckless it was.”

It was “screamingly obvious” even to a layperson Williams needed medical attention, he said

Allen was critical of the lack of medical records kept while Williams was at the jail. He said he saw no evidence Williams was ever given a physical exam. The only vitals taken were handwritten and not entered into Williams’ electronic medical records until months after he died.

And the vitals that were taken were not normal, Allen testified. It showed his heart rate was high and his blood pressure elevated.

Williams wasn’t treated with dignity by jail or medical staff, Allen said. Jail staff failed to ensure Williams had food and water, and didn’t clean him up properly when he defecated on himself.

Allen said there was a clear “culture of indifference” among staff.

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Kassie McClung

Staff writer

Kassie McClung joined The Frontier in May 2016. She reports on health, criminal justice and other state issues. Kassie holds a bachelors degree in multimedia journalism from Oklahoma State University. She likes dogs, maps and data. She can be reached at Kassie@readfrontier.com or 918-935-1044. Follow her on Twitter @KassieMcClung.
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