Robinette walks back statement that Williams’ death ‘lacked human decency’

On a contentious day in court, the judge also admonished Sheriff Vic Regalado for laughing during testimony

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Nearly four years ago, then-Chief Deputy Michelle Robinette said in a deposition that the Tulsa jail detention staff she supervised “lacked human decency to take care of another human being” in the way they treated Elliott Williams.

“Based on the totality of the investigation, that is no longer my position,” she told a federal jury Monday.

Robinette, who served as Tulsa County’s interim sheriff for three months last year, also said during her 2013 deposition that jail staff who dealt with Williams failed to follow training and required procedures.

But Monday, Robinette said: “I don’t believe my officers essentially did anything wrong. We did what we were required to do.”

Former Sheriff Stanley Glanz and current Sheriff Vic Regalado are defendants in the lawsuit by Williams’ estate, alleging his Eighth and 14th Amendment rights were violated. The jail’s former medical provider, Correctional Healthcare Companies Inc., settled with Williams’ estate and is no longer a defendant.

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

Williams, a 37-year-old veteran with no felony record, died from apparent complications of a broken neck after languishing on a jail cell floor for days without food or water because he was paralyzed, records show. He was arrested by Owasso police after suffering a mental breakdown because he believed his wife planned to leave him.

In 2013, Robinette said during her deposition that Williams wasn’t properly fed or hydrated during his last days alive in Tulsa’s jail.

“He was given a styrofoam cup of water placed at his shoulder that he never drank that was kicked over by a doctor and never replaced,” her deposition states.

“And no time during that video did I see him go to them and eat any of the food out of them. None of my detention officers took the time to open the door to verify that he was eating or assist him any,” she said then.

Attorney Clark Brewster and Sheriff Vic Regalado sit at the defense table during testimony over Elliott Williams’ death in the jail. Courtroom sketch by Evelyn Petroski

Monday — the 14th day of a civil trial in Tulsa’s federal court over Williams’ death in the jail — Robinette also walked back that statement.

His treatment was not inhumane, she said.

“There were Styrofoam trays and a cup of water” in his cell, she told attorney Dan Smolen, representing Williams’ estate.

Robinette did not address the fact that jail video shows that Williams, paralyzed from a broken neck, could not reach the food and water placed just outside of his reach. His autopsy showed he had a pattern of dehydration when he died.

Last month, TCSO named Robinette as mental health coordinator at the jail, a newly created position. She will supervise mental health services for inmates in the jail’s new mental health pods, financed by a sales tax approved by voters.

Robinette said during testimony Monday that she was verbally counseled by then-Undersheriff Brian Edwards following Williams’ death.

“He believed there to be a lack of leadership, a lack of control and that I had dropped the ball” related to Williams, she testified.

U.S. District Judge John Dowdell, who is presiding over the trial, admonished Regalado Monday while County Commissioner Karen Keith testified about her opinion of a video showing Williams’ last 51 hours alive.

Keith said when watching the video, “I was disturbed by what I saw. I’m sure all of you were disturbed likewise.”

Smolen was asking Keith what she found disturbing about the video.

“I don’t think we need to tell everybody what was in the video,” she retorted.

“I think that it’s important that we need to talk about it, to make sure that it never happens again, don’t you?” Smolen replied.

“One second,” Dowdell said, stopping the testimony and pointing at the sheriff, sitting at the defense table nearby.

“Mr. Regalado, stop that,” Dowdell said.

“What?” Regalado replied.

“Laughing.”

“I’m sorry. I wasn’t laughing. But my apologies,” the sheriff replied.

Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado, left, leaves the Page Belcher Federal Courthouse on Feb. 23. Casey Roebuck, TCSO PIO, is centered. Meredith Baker, TCSO general counsel, is right. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Turning to Keith, Smolen asked: “Do you think this is funny, like the new sheriff does?”

“Please,” Keith responded, in an annoyed tone.

“You don’t, do you?” he pressed her.

“Hardly.”

During her testimony, Keith also repeatedly denied that as a county commissioner, she had responsibility for the quality of medical care given to inmates in the 1700-bed jail.

As a county commissioner since 2008, Keith is one of three elected officials who signed off on nearly all purchases and contracts by TCSO for the jail. Keith and commissioners Ron Peters and John Smaligo also serve on the Tulsa County Criminal Justice Authority, which oversees sales taxes funding the jail.

She acknowledged that state law gives county commissioners oversight of the jail but repeatedly said county commissioners rely on the sheriff to operate the jail.

Keith testified for about three hours Monday on Williams’ treatment in the jail, as well the county commissioners’ statutory obligations to ensure inmates’ well-being.

Karen Keith.courtesy

Keith said she watched a small portion of the video depicting Williams’ last hours of life in Tulsa’s jail. A 12-minute video condenses the last five days of his life.

Defense attorneys have claimed the video failed to capture everything that happened, such as Williams eating, drinking and moving. Despite being challenged, they’ve yet to offer any proof of that claim and Dowdell has allowed the video as evidence.

Keith said she only saw a small portion of the video, but said it was “difficult to watch.”

Asked whether she reported her concerns to the District Attorney’s Office after seeing the video, Keith said Williams’ death was already under investigation.

Keith testified she asked a few questions of jail staff and Robinette, but she couldn’t recall any specifics.

“I think everyone was upset,” she said.

Keith said the extent of her involvement in overseeing the jail was a tour that the three county commissioners take each year, as required by state law.

Smolen noted that state law says: “The person responsible for the administration of such jail shall provide the county commissioner with the name, age, and basis for incarceration of each prisoner, and if it appears to the commissioners that any provisions of law have been violated or neglected, they shall give notice to the district attorney of the county.”

Keith said she did not notify the DA’s office about any concerns regarding Elliott Williams because “it was already under investigation.”

TCSO’s investigation resulted in no criminal charges and no penalties for the jail’s medical contractor, paid about $5 million per year to provide doctors, nurses and other medical staff to care for inmates.

Asked whether she knew how many people did in the jail since 2005, Keith said she didn’t know.

The Frontier analyzed records from the state jail inspector, the state medical examiner’s office and other sources shows that since 2006, at least 30 people have died in Tulsa’s jail or shortly after being transported to hospitals from the jail.

Experts and medical records state that outcomes for at least 10 of those people could have changed with proper medical and mental health care. The number could be higher, as several inmate deaths resulted in claims or lawsuits quickly settled by the jail’s medical provider before detailed records were produced.

“Just so the jury’s aware, you’ve not ever read even a single mortality review of an inmate who’s died in the jail; correct?” Smolen asked Keith.

“No, sir,” she answered.

Keith said she isn’t a medical expert and the county commissioners “rely on the sheriff to run the jail.”

However, she said she gets reports of deaths and other incidents through the county’s criminal justice authority, which administers sales taxes that fund the jail.

Commissioners also get basic information from the jail on inmates in paper form. Keith said she skims through the data but looking at all of it would be “nearly impossible.” About 29,000 people are booked in Tulsa’s jail each year.

Keith testified commissioners are fulfilling their statutory obligations pertaining to the jail.

Asked who’s responsible for ensuring the jail has adequate health care, Keith replied the sheriff.

Despite issues in Tulsa’s jail, Keith said she’s still proud of the facility. Since it was built about 15 years ago, David L. Moss had been on the “cutting edge” and the sheriff’s office is “doing progressive work,” she said.

She noted while Glanz was sheriff, he was honored with several national awards.

“He was also honored with removal from office, correct?” Smolen asked.

In 2015, Glanz pleaded guilty to willful violation of the law, a misdemeanor. Glanz also pleaded no contest to refusal to perform official duty because he withheld an internal report about Reserve Deputy Robert Bates, a wealthy friend of the sheriff’s, requested by reporters.

When the charges were announced, the longtime sheriff resigned.

Smolen also pointed out how numerous audits and reviews found widespread problems in the jail’s medical system. Though Tulsa County paid for the auditors, Keith said she was unsure if the Sheriff’s Office followed the auditors’ recommendations.

Again, she said, county commissioners rely on the sheriff to do his job.

Multiple reviews of the jails by accrediting agencies and experts from 2007-2011 found a wide array of issues the Sheriff’s Office was urged to address. One consultant strongly recommended in 2009 TCSO hire a registered nurse with administrative experience to oversee the jail’s medical contractor.

Glan testified earlier in the trial that he lacked the money to fill the position because his request was denied by the county commission. However, Keith said she has no memory of such a request.

During cross-examination defense attorney Clark Brewster reminded Keith that Glanz requested those audits because he wanted to see the jail’s medical care improve.

“We had all become acutely aware that our county jails had become the de facto mental health providers, and really that’s — that’s true across the country. A lot of — and particularly here in the state, we closed down all those mental health facilities, and the sheriff early on recognized that that is not the best way for us to take care of our
mentally ill,” Keith testified.

“So in an effort, we decided we wanted to do something that was pretty cutting-edge. I say ‘we.’ This is the sheriff and some of his staff who thought these mental health pods would be a good thing for us to do. … I’m really grateful that they’ll be opening soon.”

Regalado also testified briefly Monday, saying TCSO had “allowed or given the ability of a detention officer” to override jail medical staff in some situations. Smolen pointed to an existing policy, in place before Regalado’s election, that allowed such discretion.

Smolen also asked Regalado his opinion of Williams’ treatment in the jail and whether he was treated humanely.

“It’s hard to make that determination,” Regalado replied, “because I don’t have all the evidence.”

Regalado has not been present for all of the testimony and at times has dispatched his undersheriff, George Brown, to attend in his place.

The trial continues Tuesday for its 15th day, with continued testimony from Robinette. The plaintiffs are expected to rest their case soon and the defense will begin calling witnesses.

After one juror was dismissed last week due to scheduling conflicts, there are four men and four women serving on the jury.

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Ziva Branstetter

Editor in Chief / Staff Writer

Ziva maintains she was always too nosy to be anything other than a reporter. Though she's on a new adventure with The Frontier, she spent more than 25 years in the newspaper business, making politicians nervous and making sure readers got the truth. Contact: ziva@readfrontier.com or 918-520-0406.
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