SANTA CLARA, Calif. - A federal civil rights lawsuit was filed today against the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Department that alleges jail guards used excessive force on a suicidal inmate and failed to address his medical problems, leading to his death.
This is a tough case -- a suicidal inmate won't respond to guards, so they hit him with several doses of pepper spray, a riot gun with plastic projectiles at close range, and finally a cell extraction team.
32-year-old Walter Roches arrived at Santa Clara County's Main Jail in September 2015 facing a misdemeanor battery charge. Records show he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and psychosis, and that Roches refused to take medication at the jail "so his mental illness was left untreated".
"He was not a threat to anybody," argues Roches family attorney Sarah Marinho. "And he had no weapons in his cell to be a threat to himself."
Marinho filed this civil rights lawsuit today on behalf of Walter Roches' mother. It says the inmate told a mental health worker that he was "sad and suicidal", and jail staff decided to move him to an observation cell. But, Roches would not cooperate -- wouldn't even respond to the guards -- was in what the lawsuit describes as a catatonic state.
Guards applied pepper spray several times, then "Clear Out" that deprives an inmate of oxygen, hit him three times in the stomach with plastic projectiles from a riot gun, the FN-3o3. Still, no response. The lawsuit says he just sat there.
So, the jail sent a cell extraction team, much like one seen in file video from San Quentin, to take Roches down.
Sarah Marinho, Plaintiffs Attorney
"The problem is when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, so Walter Roches needed their help and their kindness and for them to see he was ailing."
The lawsuit says Roches declined medical treatment, died in his cell a week later, and that "The coroner's report indicated that Walter died of sepsis from an untreated urinary tract infection and untreated mental illness and found that the use of force by the deputies may have heightened and accelerated an already delirious state."
No comment from the sheriff's department or county counsel. They say they haven't received or reviewed the lawsuit yet. One central issue will be the use of that riot gun.
Sources who are very familiar with training here at the main jail tell me the guards violated not only department policy, but also the guidelines of the FN-303's manufacturer.
Jail sources tell me the guards:
-- should not have fired the riot gun through the cell door's food port,
-- should not have hit Roches at such close range,
-- should not have used the FN-303 on a mentally-ill inmate, who is not presenting a danger to himself or others.
I questioned the sheriff about the riot gun almost two years ago.
Dan: "Have you now banned the use of the FN303 riot gun with a mentally-ill inmate as other facilities have?"
Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith: "We have banned it entirely."
In fact, the sheriff's new use of force policy says the FN-303 cannot be used in any cell extraction. Walter Roches died a month after another mentally-ill inmate, Michael Tyree, was beaten to death by guards.
Click here to read the Santa Clara County Jail's Use of Force policy.