Lawsuit: Grady Co. jail violated several laws, state jail standards in man’s death

Jail video shows that leading up to his death, Justin Thao yelled out:
"Help me, please."
"I'm going to commit suicide."

Justin Thao, 20, died at an Oklahoma City hospital just days after being found unresponsive in the Grady County Jail in 2017. PROVIDED
The family of a man who died after he was found unresponsive in the Grady County Law Enforcement Center in 2017 has filed a civil lawsuit against the trust that oversees the jail, its trustees and several jailers.

The suit, filed Tuesday in Grady County District Court, alleges officials and staff violated several state laws and jail standards, and were deliberately indifferent to the man’s needs while he was in crisis.

The lawsuit also alleges jailers used excessive force against the man by needlessly using a stun gun on him several times.

Justin Xaochay Thao, 20, died in an Oklahoma City hospital on Nov. 18, 2017, just two days after jailers found him hanging in an isolated segregation cell. In the time leading up to his death, Thao yelled out several pleas to jailers, video provided by the family’s attorney shows.

“I’m going to commit suicide,” Thao said.

“Help me, please,” were his last words before jailers found him unresponsive in his cell.

The Frontier first wrote about Thao in December 2018. At the time of his death he was serving a year-long sentence on federal marijuana distribution charges. He was supposed to stay in Grady County for only one night before being transported to a facility closer to his family in his home state of California. 

The lawsuit alleges that the Grady County Criminal Justice Authority — the trust that oversees the jail — trustees and the jail’s administrator did not provide any training to jailers responsible for Thao, which was a violation of state law. Additionally, Thao allegedly never received a medical screening upon admission to the jail, a violation of state jail standards.

While in a cell with other federal inmates at the Grady County jail, Thao appeared to charge at a nurse administering medication, according to a jail incident report. Jailers subdued and handcuffed Thao and then transported him to a different part of the jail, according to the lawsuit. Though he was handcuffed and not resisting, the suit alleges, a jailer “maliciously” and “sadistically” used a Taser on Thao several times in an elevator. Five other unidentified jailers were present, the suit states.

Audio from the incident shows Thao was questioning whether jailers or inmates were trying to kill him, according to the lawsuit. 

The suit alleges that though it was obvious Thao was in the throes of a mental and/or physical crisis, the staff placed him in a segregated cell where he could not be properly observed. Jailers again allegedly violated jail standards when none were on duty where Thao was confined, nor were they monitoring him via surveillance cameras, according to the lawsuit. 

“The cell where he was confined was not otherwise visible to a jailer unless the cover to the small window was manually lifted,” the lawsuit states. “Even then, jailers were unable to observe the entire cell through the small window. The cell was not visible at all through closed circuit TV.”

Justin Thao’s shoes are shown on the floor of the shower cell where he was held at the Grady County Law Enforcement Center. PROVIDED

Jailers checked on Thao only twice during the almost two hours he was in the cell and had not checked on him for an hour and 15 minutes prior to finding him unresponsive, the lawsuit alleges. And when paramedics arrived and asked how long Thao had been hanging in the cell, jailers told them staff “generally check on them every 15 minutes,” according to the suit. 

The lawsuit alleges when jailers did not respond to Thao’s pleas for help, they violated state jail standards that require cells to be “equipped with an intercommunication system that terminates in a location that is staffed twenty-four (24) hours a day and is capable of providing an emergency response,” the suit states.

The lawsuit is seeking in excess of $75,000. 

Jim Gerlach, administrator for the Grady County jail, did not respond to requests for comment by publishing time Tuesday afternoon. 

ACLU of Oklahoma Staff Attorney Megan Lambert said the Grady County jail showed reckless indifference to Thao’s life.

“Jails across the state have failed to meet even the most minimal of its own standards and procedures for caring for those with mental illness,” Lambert said in an emailed statement.

“People who are incarcerated are processed without sufficient medical screening, left without proper medical care, and punished rather than treated for the symptoms of their illness. The lack of proper care permeates Oklahoma jails, where the leading cause of death is suicide.

“Until Oklahoma jails implement and follow basic healthcare procedures, including mental health, tragic and preventable suffering and deaths like that of Justin Thao will continue to plague Oklahoma’s criminal justice system.”

At least eight people have died by suicide while in the custody of Oklahoma jails so far this year, a Frontier analysis found.

The state jail inspection division, which falls under the Oklahoma State Department of Health, cited the Grady County jail in early 2016 for failing to conduct sight checks on inmates at least once each hour as required by jail standards, inspection records show.



20160125 Notice of Violation (Cell 127) (1) (Text)

The division issued the violation after investigating a woman’s death in the jail in 2015. Since 2014, at least six people have died in the jail’s custody or shortly after being found unresponsive in the jail, according to a database maintained by The Frontier. Half of those were by suicide.

Thao’s father, Chukou Thao, said his son was his best friend.

“As a child, he never left my side. I can still see his smile and laugh lighting up his face,” Chukou Thao said in an emailed statement. “Trying to pick up the pieces and move on after the Grady County Jail ignored his pleas for help is the hardest thing I have ever had to do.”

May Kou Heu, Thao’s mother, said she can’t talk about her son in the past tense.

“He is everything to me,” she said in a statement. “No matter how old your youngest child is, he will always be your baby. It kills me to know that I will never again hear him say ‘I love you mama’, which were the last words he ever said to me, on November 15, 2017.”

Continued reading: 

Cell by Cell: The complete list of people who have died in Oklahoma jails in 2019

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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.