A jury verdict Wednesday finding former Sheriff Stanley Glanz and his office responsible for civil rights violations over sexual assaults in the jail could be just the first in a series of legal challenges facing the county.
While Wednesday’s $25,000 award by the jury on behalf of the plaintiff was lower than attorneys on both sides expected, the case is expected to cost taxpayers far more. Attorneys who prevail in federal civil rights cases can recoup their legal fees and costs associated with the case, paid for by the defendants.
Since the case was filed in 2011 and involved work by two law firms, the bill submitted for the judge’s approval is likely to be large. But possibly larger costs are on the horizon, because records show Glanz has been named as a defendant in 21 open civil rights lawsuits filed in the Northern District of federal court.
Those cases include a lawsuit by the estate of Elliott Williams, who died an excruciating death over several days in 2011 after his spine was fractured while in custody of the Owasso Police Department. Videotape of Williams’ last days show Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office detention officers, who thought he was faking, taunting him with water placed just out of reach.
Other pending lawsuits involve a woman who alleges she was raped in the jail’s medical unit when detention officers didn’t supervise a dangerous inmate allowed to work as a trustee. The plaintiff in the case was being held in the same unit at the jail as the woman who prevailed in the civil case Wednesday in federal court.
Unless a new sheriff decides to make a change in the agency’s legal team, attorney Clark Brewster will continue to represent the county in the pending lawsuits.
Attorneys Daniel Smolen and Tom Mortensen said Wednesday they believe jurors intended to send a message to the sheriff’s office with the verdict in their case. The plaintiff, now 23, alleged she was 17 when she was raped and sexually assaulted by a detention officer in the jail over a four-month period in 2010.
The jury trial began Feb. 19 and lasted eight days. Six jurors deliberated more than nine hours before returning a verdict finding Glanz guilty in his individual capacity and his official capacity of violating the plaintiff’s civil rights.
Glanz resigned from office in November after he was indicted by a grand jury on two misdemeanor counts relating to corruption in office.
Dan Smolen, an attorney for the plaintiff, said the outcome shows jurors intended to send a message.
“A year ago, Stanley Glanz was the most popular sheriff in the state of Oklahoma. And he just had a civil rights jury verdict. So we’re extremely happy with the outcome.”
Attorney Clark Brewster, representing Glanz and Robinette, tried to put the verdict in a positive light. Brewster had argued in his opening and closing statements that the lawsuit was a “shakedown based on lies.”
“I’m very pleased that the jury accepted what we said had happened, which was there were no serious sexual assaults,” he said.
However, the statute that jurors considered required them to find that the plaintiff suffered serious injuries — more than “minor, isolated incidents”— before returning a guilty verdict.
Brewster said he was “disappointed that they felt the jail should be held responsible because this jail acted responsibly in investigating the incidents and taking prompt action.”
According to records and testimony during the trial, the sheriff’s office did not take prompt action. The detention officer was allowed to resign, although sheriff’s officials found the girl’s allegations credible and recommended that charges be filed.
The sheriff’s office also did not report the girl’s allegations or those of another teen in the same year to a federal panel on prison rape. Glanz said during his testimony that he didn’t know why the allegations were left out of the agency’s report to the U.S. Department of Justice, which has still not been corrected.
Smolen and his co-counsel, Tom Mortensen, said they believe their case is one of the few times a sheriff in Oklahoma has been found liable by a jury for civil rights violations in federal court.
“It’s a huge message to the county that they’re not going to allow girls to be raped in the jail, sexually assaulted in the jail,” Smolen said. “The jury did a great job. They set an amount that they thought was appropriate. So we’re happy, we’re happy that that sends a message.”
Mortensen said verdicts in such civil rights cases are unusual. While Brewster said the financial award showed the jury doubted the plaintiff’s story, Mortensen disagreed.
“Go ask the jury. They just found the sheriff liable in his individual capacity and his official capacity. That’s a rare thing.”
To find for the plaintiff in such cases, jurors must not only agree the plaintiff suffered a serious injury in the jail. They must also find that the official in charge was “deliberately indifferent” to a risk of serious harm to the plaintiff and that the risk was obvious.
Jurors were allowed to consider answers during a video deposition of the former detention officer, Seth Bowers, in making their decision. Bowers repeatedly invoked the Fifth Amendment during questioning about whether he had sexual contact with the plaintiff, then 17, in the jail.
While his attorney said his refusal to answer shouldn’t be viewed as evidence of guilt, U.S. District Judge John Dowdell told jurors they could infer “that truthful answers to questions asked may incriminate him.”
The sheriff’s office found the allegations credible and forwarded the case to the district attorney, which declined to file charges.
The plaintiff did not report the sexual abuse until after she was released. During initial interviews with the sheriff’s office, she said that Bowers groped her, watched her in the shower and exposed himself to her but did not say she was raped or forced to perform oral sex, as the suit claimed.
An expert for the plaintiff testified that she likely withheld information due to her history of abuse and the way in which the sheriff’s office conducted that interview — at the jail with a male officer in uniform.
The trial raised troubling questions about how female juveniles are treated in the jail. Boys and girls as young as 13 can be held in the adult jail if they are accused of one of 18 crimes.
Though most of the crimes are serious, violent crimes, others involve drugs and burglary. The plaintiff was given a deferred sentence for the assault charge she was being held on in 2010.
Underage boys have their own pod at the jail with a common area allowing them to watch TV and socialize during much of the day, girls are generally locked down 23 out of 24 hours of the day in individual cells in the jail’s medical unit.
The girls are released for visits with family, showers and a few meetings each week with a teacher who comes to the unit.
Acting Sheriff Michelle Robinette and others testified there aren’t enough girls booked into the adult jail to justify building a separate housing pod for them. Records show 24 girls have been held in the jail over the past 14 months.
While jailers who staff the unit for juvenile males must have special training and experience, the sheriff’s office makes no such requirements for officers assigned to the medical unit, where girls are held. Male detention officers doing security checks are allowed to routinely view girls while they shower, change clothes or use the toilet, an apparent violation of the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.
The jail also had no cameras placed in the area where girls are held, which her attorneys said allowed Bowers frequent access to the plaintiff without worrying about evidence of wrongdoing.