The estate of a man who died in the Oklahoma County jail last year has filed a federal lawsuit alleging the county’s sheriff, former sheriff and jail employees were indifferent to the man’s medical needs.
Mitchell Everett Willis, 54, died in the Oklahoma County Jail on Aug. 18, 2017. His estate filed a civil suit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma on Wednesday alleging negligence, indifference and excessive force.
The lawsuit names the Oklahoma County Jail, Oklahoma County Sheriff P.D. Taylor, the county Sheriff’s Office, unnamed jail employees, Armor Correctional Health Services and the Oklahoma County Board of County Commissioners. It also names former sheriff John Whetsel in his individual capacity.
Willis was booked into the jail for public drunkenness, disorderly conduct and resisting an officer the morning he died.
The suit alleges unknown jail employees — named only as John and/or Jane Doe in the suit — assaulted Willis. An employee caused the blunt force injuries by applying “severe pressure” to Willis’ back and “violently” pulling up on his head in an attempt to undress him, according to the suit.
The suit alleges after Willis was assaulted, he was left lying paralyzed, naked and face down on the floor, where he eventually died of his injuries.
Willis’ estate alternatively alleges jail staff alerted Armor Correctional Health Services of Willis’ injuries, and the medical provider failed to treat him.
Derek Franseen, an attorney for the estate, said they do not yet know the names of the employees who could be responsible for the alleged assault. Record requests to the sheriff’s office and board of county commissioners for that information have gone unanswered, he said.
Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Mark Opgrande said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. He said the department will not release the name of the employee or employees who were involved in the incident at this time. OCSO is awaiting the results of the criminal investigation, he said.
Yeleny Suarez, a spokeswoman for Armor Correctional Health Services, said in an email the company does not comment on pending litigation.
Whetsel did not respond to a message left at a phone number listed under his name.
Willis was arrested following a confrontation with Oklahoma City police the morning of Aug. 17. Officers used O.C. spray on Willis, but did not use any other use of force, according to an arrest report.
The state Medical Examiner’s Office stated in its investigation of Willis’ death he died from blunt force trauma of his spine.
Willis died by “violent” and “unnatural” causes, the report stated. The ME’s Office determined it a homicide.
“According to the National Association of Medical Examiners Guidelines, ‘Deaths due to positional restraint induced my law enforcement personnel or to choke holds or other measures to subdue may be classified as homicide,” the report stated.
“In such cases, there may not intent to kill, but the death results from one or more intentional volitional, potentially harmful acts direct at the decedent…'”
Willis got into an altercation once inside the Oklahoma County jail, the report stated. He made suicidal and homicidal comments, and was placed on suicide watch. Staff said they checked on him every 15 minutes, according to the report.
“Soon after being put in the cell, it was reported that guards entered the cell to remove the decedent’s pants for his own safety,” the report stated. “The decedent was combative and a guard placed a knee on the decedent’s back to subdue him.”
During later rounds, detention officers found Willis unresponsive, the report stated. The report does not state how much time had passed when the later rounds were done.
EMSA pronounced Willis dead at the scene. The ME’s report stated when an investigator arrived, Willis was naked on the floor with paint chips covering his body. He had several cuts and bruises.
The lawsuit claims jail employees and/or the jail’s medical providers were aware of Willis’ injuries but did not get him treatment.
“Mr. Willis was ultimately found unresponsive as a result of these injuries and was declared dead as a result of homicide,” the suit stated.
The suit alleges Taylor and Whetsel knew the jail was understaffed and under-supervised.
Willis’ estate is seeking in excess of $75,000 for punitive and compensatory damages.
The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation looked into the incident. OSBI spokeswoman Beth Green said on Monday the findings of the investigation have been turned over to the Oklahoma District Attorney’s Office for consideration.
Oklahoma District Attorney David Prater told The Oklahoman in September criminal charges in Willis’ death were possible. Prater did not respond to requests for comment on Friday or Monday.