Jurors in a federal civil rights trial watched a disturbing 10-minute video Thursday of Elliott Williams trying to reach food and water before dying on the floor of his Tulsa jail cell.
The video is a key piece of evidence in the civil lawsuit by Williams’ estate against Sheriff Vic Regalado and former Sheriff Stanley Glanz. The nine-member jury watched the video on small screens installed in the jury box and large flat-screen televisions in the courtroom.
Before jurors watched the video, an attorney for the county said during opening statements in the trial that Williams didn’t die in Tulsa’s jail from a lack of medical care, but instead committed suicide.
Attorney Clark Brewster said Williams made several attempts to kill himself during the weeks leading up to his death.
“But the last one, he was successful,” he said.
Brewster also claimed that jail staff didn’t ignore Williams’ medical needs and they reported his condition to medical staff.
“Mr. Williams didn’t tell (nurses) he was paralyzed; he told them he couldn’t move,” Brewster said.
The lawsuit over Williams’ 2011 death names Regalado in his official capacity and Glanz in his individual capacity. The jail’s former medical provider, Correctional Healthcare Companies Inc., was previously named but has already settled with Williams’ estate for an undisclosed amount.
Williams died from complications of a broken neck and showed signs of dehydration, a medical examiner’s report states. The video depicts him lying on the floor of a cell over five days while detention staff tossed trays of food at his feet and placed a cup of water out of reach.
Defense attorneys for the Sheriff’s Office argued Thursday that Williams’ demise wasn’t caused by inadequate medical care. Instead, Williams was responsible for his own death, they said.
Dan Smolen, an attorney representing Williams’ estate, said during opening statements it’s unknown exactly how Williams’ neck was broken. The injury might have come from his arrest by Owasso police, when he was dropped four feet from a gurney or he might have rammed his head into a wall while in the jail.
But how Williams was injured is irrelevant, Smolen said Thursday.
“The case has to do with how people reacted 48 hours after (he broke his neck),” he told the jury.
Smolen told jurors Williams lied soaked in urine and covered in his own feces for days while “begging the guards to give him water.”
“But they just looked at him.”
Smolen told jurors Williams had a great smile, a light heart and passion for preaching. Williams wasn’t a career criminal; he had a mental breakdown.
In fact, the 37-year-old veteran had no felony record and was arrested by Owasso police on a misdemeanor complaint of obstructing an officer.
During his opening statement, Brewster told jurors that by the end of the trial, it would become clear that Williams killed himself.
“We’re talking about a suicidal, mentally ill man,” Brewster said.
During opening statements, Smolen showed jurors the video, which showed Williams’ lying paralyzed on the floor of the medical unit over several days while detention and medical staff placed a cup of water just out of his reach.
Jurors watched as medical staff in the video tried to resuscitate Williams after he died. Smolen called the CPR “cosmetic resuscitation efforts” performed because employees were aware of the camera in the cell.
“Elliott Williams had been dead for hours,” Smolen said.
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.
“What you just saw wasn’t even the trailer to the movie,” Brewster said. “It was snippets and cuts to make something sensational.”
Still, Brewster acknowledged jail nurses “dropped the ball” in believing Williams was faking his paralysis.
“They could be wrong and were wrong, but that doesn’t make a civil rights case,” he said.
Jail staff didn’t ignore Williams’ medical needs, and they reported his medical condition to medical staff every chance they had, Brewster said.
“Mr. Williams didn’t tell (nurses) he was paralyzed, he told them he couldn’t move,” he said.
First witness gives testimony
Former Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Billy McKelvey was the first witness to give testimony in the civil trial.
McKelvey, a former corporal at the Sheriff’s Office internal affairs, investigated Williams’ death. His March 2012 investigation’s executive summary included a review of photos, witness statements and videos.
The report notes after Williams injured his neck, the “next 10 1/2 hours Elliott was left untreated in holding cell #10.” An inmate told McKelvey he saw Williams ram his head into a cell door.
McKelvey said he doesn’t believe jail or medical staff did anything to support Williams’ broken neck. By the end of his investigation, McKelvey concluded more than 20 jail and medical staffers came into contact with Williams.
Williams was picked up from his holding cell, put on a gurney and wheeled to medical where his clothing was “ripped” off his body. After that, he was dumped onto his back into a shower and left there for about two hours, McKelvey said his investigation found. Williams repeatedly told detention and medical staff he couldn’t move. When jail staff took Williams from the shower, he was picked up by his arms and legs and dragged to a cell using a blanket.
No one in the jail called 911 until the very end when Williams was already dead, McKelvey said. He said at the time Williams injured his neck, there was a “practice” of pointing fingers at the jail’s healthcare provider.
A testimony in the investigation from Christopher Leverich, a detention officer at Tulsa’s jail when Williams died, said he saw Willaims lying in the shower on his stomach screaming “help me.”
“Did he find the help he was looking for?” Smolen asked McKelvey.
“No,” McKelvey answered.
Leverich’s report described Williams’ skin color as “purplish,” as if he had extreme lack of oxygen.
As part of his investigation, McKelvey reviewed the video of Williams dying. He said there is no video missing and confirmed the camera is motion-activated.
Brewster has insisted the camera wasn’t motion-activated.
McKelvey said jail and medical staff believed Williams was suffering from “psychosomatic paralysis” and that he was trying to deceive staff into thinking he was actually paralyzed.
When asked whether Williams received treatment for his injuries, McKelvey said Williams’ pulse and blood pressure was taken, along with a simple test to see whether he was actually paralyzed.
“That’s the only treatment I found — if you call that treatment,” he said.
Smolen also asked McKelvey about jail logs that indicate Williams fed himself breakfast the morning of the day he died. The video of Williams in the medical unit that morning shows jail staff tossing a foam container at his feet through a slot in the door, but Williams was not able to move to reach it.
McKelvey said he didn’t know why the logs were falsified, but the inaccuracy was a violation of the jail’s policy. He said he doesn’t believe anyone was punished for the offense.
Smolen asked McKelvey whether declining to send inmates to the hospital was a practice the jail has used to save money, and McKelvey said yes.
Under the contract between the jail and its healthcare provider, a cap exists on how much the provider will pay for inmates’ medical expenses outside of the jail, such as care at a hospital. After that cap is exceeded, the burden of the cost falls to the county.
Attorneys for the Sheriff’s Office are expected to cross examine McKelvey on Friday morning.
Before opening statements started, a juror requested U.S. District Judge John Dowdell dismiss him because of school work and so he care for his brother who is scheduled to have surgery soon.
The juror said he wasn’t aware of his brother’s upcoming surgery until after Wednesday’s jury selection.
Dowdell said it “troubled him” to excuse the man from the jury.
“I think you’re a very, honest good person. … I thought you’d be a model juror,” Dowdell said.
Attorneys argued over Brewster’s attempts to remove black jurors from the pool during jury selection Wednesday. The man dismissed Thursday morning was the only black juror on the case, leaving an all white jury of five women and four men.