Former acting Sheriff Michelle Robinette frequently contradicted her previous sworn testimony Tuesday in the Elliott Williams case, saying her staff’s treatment of Williams wasn’t inhumane and that she didn’t believe jail employees should have been disciplined.
Similar to Monday, her testimony disagreed with numerous statements she made in a 2013 deposition. The plaintiffs are expected to rest after Robinette finishes her testimony Tuesday afternoon.
Asked whether Williams should have been taken to a hospital as soon as he said his neck was broken at the jail in 2011, Robinette said jail staff didn’t know if he was faking paralysis.
“I don’t know if he was faking or not,” she said.
However, in her deposition, Robinette said she didn’t think Williams was faking his injury.
“Now you don’t know?” asked Dan Smolen, an attorney for Williams’ estate.
“I don’t know,” she responded.
TCSO conducted an extensive investigation that detailed a number of apparent policy violations and contradictions in employees’ statements. Robinette said she was not involved in the investigation and was unaware of its outcome.
Former Sheriff Stanley Glanz and current Sheriff Vic Regalado are defendants in the federal 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.
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 her 2013 deposition for the lawsuit, Robinette said jail staff “lacked human decency to take care of another human being” in the way they treated Williams.
“Based on the totality of the investigation, that is no longer my position,” she told the jury Monday.
Robinette said Tuesday she didn’t know when her mind changed and couldn’t point to anything specific she uncovered that changed her opinion other than “time” and “review of the case.”
When Smolen reminded Robinette she told jurors Monday there was nothing wrong with how Williams was treated, she said that wasn’t true.
Robinette said there were problems with his treatment, but those issues were addressed and fixed. She said her comment that his death “lack human decency” was simply a reaction to watching the video of Williams dying.
After a jail psychiatrist concluded he believed Williams was faking paralysis, Williams was placed in a video-monitored cell. A live feed of Williams in his monitored cell was displayed on a screen in detention staff’s work station.
The video shows Williams spent 51 hours on the floor, during which trays of food were tossed into his cell through a “bean hole” in the door. A single cup of water was placed in the cell but knocked over by staff on the second day and not replaced, records show.
A video played in court Tuesday shows how Williams’ feet do not move on their own during his last 51 hours.
Robinette agreed with Smolen that the detention staff has a legal obligation to provide food and water. However, when asked what the staff is supposed to do when an inmate can’t feed himself or drink, Robinette said that is the medical staff’s responsibility.
When Smolen asked why no one helped Williams, Robinette said she couldn’t say nobody helped him.
Reminded that she watched the video of Williams during deposition, Robinette said she doesn’t know whether the video showed everything that happened.
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 U.S. District Judge John Dowdell has allowed the video as evidence.
Robinette acknowledged she hasn’t come across evidence that would suggest anything occurred outside of what the video shows. She had not heard the claim something was wrong with the video until a recent meeting with defense attorneys, she said.
Attorney Clark Brewster, a longtime friend of former Sheriff Stanley Glanz, is representing the county. Brewster also served as Glanz’s campaign manager and his wife and daughter have held patronage jobs appraising foreclosed properties for the sheriff’s office.
Asked if she was satisfied with how detention staff monitored Williams, Robinette said yes. They watched Williams on the screen and did cell checks as required in their job description, she said.
However, in her 2013 deposition, Robinette said staff “absolutely” failed Williams while he was in booking. He was placed in a holding cell shortly after he entered the jail’s custody and never received an intake health screening.
Smolen said Williams was lying in his own feces and urine for hours before he was taken to the medical unit. Records show Williams was given no clothing and that he lay on the same “suicide blanket” during his last days at the jail, which reports state was soiled.
Asked Tuesday whether she still believed staff failed, Robinette said detention officers depended on medical staff and Williams wasn’t crying out or “being a bother,” therefore officers didn’t check on him.
Williams was a known suicide risk with a history of mental illness and as such, was supposed to be under constant observation at least initially, according to prior testimony in the case. However he was left alone on the floor of his holding cell for more than 10 hours after telling jail staff he believed he had broken his neck, according to records and testimony.
Robinette has recently been named the jail’s new mental health program coordinator, a civilian job. She was previously chief deputy over the jail from 2008 through 2014 and served as interim sheriff for about three months last year.
It is unclear what training Robinette has for the new role, other than a long history of working in the jail. She said during her testimony that she has a psychology degree.
Robinette said she thought it was inappropriate that her staff “bought into” nurses’ diagnosis Williams was faking his paralysis. However, she said she is less critical of their treatment now than when her deposition was taken.
Robinette on multiple occasions Tuesday said it wasn’t her job to discipline staff and left the task to TCSO’s internal affairs unit and the undersheriff.
Asked what she could have done differently to prevent Williams’ death, Robinette said she couldn’t name anything specifically. She did not know about Williams until after he died, despite the fact that he had been placed in a video-monitored cell complaining of paralysis and she was required to make rounds in the medical unit.
Asked how many people died while she was overseeing the jail between 2008 and 2014, Robinette said she didn’t know.
Smolen listed the names of more than 20 people who died in the jail. Robinette said some of the names sounded familiar, but she couldn’t recall the circumstances in which they died.
Asked to name one person who died in that time period, Robinette said she couldn’t.
Four people died in the jail in 2016, Smolen noted.
“How many people does it take dying in the jail before you guys do something about it?” he asked.
Robinette said staff investigates and reviews every inmate death to determine whether it was preventable. Jail employees then fix the problems or make tweaks, she said.
Robinette was a member of the committee that wrote the 2012 contract renewal with the jail’s medical provider, CHC. That contract was renewed despite Williams’ death, which Robinette said at the time was “inhumane.”
A clause in the contract allowed Robinette to write a letter if she had concerns about the actions of medical staff. She testified Tuesday that she didn’t write a letter because she addressed her concerns about Williams’ treatment verbally with CHC staff.
The Frontier is suing Regalado over jail video related to one death and another inmate who suffered a broken neck in the jail. He maintains that jail video is not public except when inmates are charged with a crime that occurs in the jail.
Robinette she couldn’t recall any particular policy changes resulting from Williams’ death. When Smolen asked what practices were changed as a result of the other named inmates who died in the jail, Robinette couldn’t recall those, either.
Robinette, the jail’s top supervisor over operations at the time Williams died, said she doesn’t know how Williams died and had not seen his autopsy.
Smolen pressed Robinette on who in the jail was responsible for ensuring inmates received adequate health care.
A 2009 report from consultant Betty Gondles urged the jail to hire someone to monitor the contract with its private health care provider. Many of the jail’s problems stemmed from a lack of oversight by a trained observer.
“It is not enough for a correctional administrator to have good intentions or trust that a private provider is carrying out the administrative and clinical mandate to provide adequate health care to inmates,” Gondles’ 2009 report states.
“The correctional administrator must have the expertise in his or her executive staff to judge the competency of the health staff … and the quality of health services being provided,” her report states.
Robinette agreed it was jail staff’s responsibility to provide healthcare to inmates. The jail contracted with CHC to do that. However, she said she didn’t oversee CHC employees, only the services.
Smolen pointed to a Sheriff’s Office policy stating all contractual employees, including contractors, work under the agency’s supervision and practices.
Robinette said CHC employees don’t report to jail staff, but to their medical supervisors. Jail staff supervises the medical provider as a whole.
Smolen pointed out the jail appointed former acting Sheriff Rick Weigel, who had no medical background, to serve as the contract monitor at one point.
Robinette said the jail relied on auditors and consultants to inspect the facility’s medical care regularly to ensure it was adequate. Detention staff isn’t medically trained, she said.