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“There was an audio recording…”
In the final hours of his life, a Cotulla man cried for medical attention that never came, and his anguished death may have been observed by county jailers who mocked him from the other side of a window.
The Texas Association of Counties has stepped in to cover 75 percent of a $1.1 million lawsuit payout on behalf of La Salle County to the family of James Dean Davis, who died while in sheriff’s office custody in 2017.
The case resolution this month means La Salle County taxpayer funds totaling $275,000 will go to the plaintiffs while the remainder is covered by the county’s insurance policy.
The latest settlement related to Davis’ death in the La Salle County Jail comes on the heels of a suit filed by the deceased’s life partner, Annie Kubish, who received $30,000 in her claim against the county. That settlement was likewise paid earlier this year by the Texas Association of Counties (TAC) insurance.
Davis, 42, had been arrested on a La Salle County Court warrant for theft up to $750 in value and remanded into custody at the La Salle County Jail at 2:20 p.m. Monday, July 31, 2017, according to the sheriff’s office, and reportedly declined medical attention at the time of his booking.
Jail staff found the man unresponsive in a holding cell at around 7 a.m. Aug. 1 and summoned paramedics. Davis was pronounced dead shortly thereafter by a justice of the peace. He had been in custody for a little more than 16 hours.
An investigation into the death was conducted by the Texas Rangers and revealed a number of discrepancies in the county jail’s logbooks where staff were to have noted cell check-ups and other routine tasks. Among those discrepancies, according to investigators, was an apparent failure by one or more correctional officers to tour the cells in the 48-bed facility and monitor the welfare of the detainees.
The investigation also revealed that portions of the jail supervision logbook had been altered to show that routine welfare checks had been conducted as required.
County officials have acknowledged the discrepancies in the written records of detainee welfare checks but have asserted that Davis was under continual observation while in custody.
Two correctional officers were subsequently charged with having falsified the information provided to the Texas Rangers in their investigation. Both were taken into custody and later indicted by a La Salle County grand jury.
Davis’ family filed suit against the county for its apparent negligence, alleging that the county’s employees were responsible for allowing the man’s medical condition to deteriorate and not seeking aid in a timely manner.
The investigation revealed that Davis may have changed his mind on asking for medical attention during the hours after his booking and that he allegedly pleaded with jail staff to call an ambulance for him.
La Salle County Judge Joel Rodriguez said last week that he believes the county government is fortunate to have been given insurance coverage by the statewide association.
“There have been cases of this kind in other counties where the TAC has not covered a settlement because of alleged negligence,” the county judge said. “Our attorneys sat down several times with the plaintiffs and with the TAC before we reached this resolution.
“It’s unfortunate that this happened,” the county judge said of the detainee’s death. “What was different about this case was that Davis was, in fact, under constant observation by jail staff because he was in a holding cell that was visible to the jailers via a Plexiglas window. He was under visual observation at all times.”
Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez said Davis had a history of run-ins with the law and had been taken into custody a number of times in the past. On many of those occasions, the sheriff said, Davis had immediately asked for an ambulance or paramedic attention and had then refused the service or declined to be transported to a hospital.
On the afternoon in question, sheriff’s deputies had been dispatched to a disturbance in a residential neighborhood in Cotulla and encountered Davis, who asked for a meeting with La Salle Sgt. Rickey Galvan, the sheriff said.
“Davis told the deputies that he knew he was going to be taken into custody because he was wanted on some misdemeanor arrest warrants,” Sheriff Rodriguez said. “He said he did not want to be taken to a hospital. He declined medical attention.”
“When he was in custody at the jail, that’s when Davis said he was experiencing medical problems,” the sheriff said.
The county judge said he does not dispute the sheriff’s claim that Davis made contradictory statements but acknowledged that there was evidence suggesting jail staff either ignored the detainee or were negligent.
Among evidence uncovered during the Texas Rangers’ investigation was material revealing allegedly improper conduct by correctional officers. It would prove damning to the county’s defense.
“What made this case so difficult for everybody was that there was an audio recording,” Judge Rodriguez said. “The jail staff can be heard making disparaging remarks about Davis while he is pleading for their help from the other side of the glass.”
“He was hollering,” the sheriff said of Davis’ behavior in custody. “He had been in jail several times already, and he had a history of drug-related charges. The staff made comments about him and didn’t call an ambulance.”
The sheriff confirmed that two correctional officers falsified information in the jail logbook after Davis died.
“Yes, he had some medical conditions,” the county judge said of Davis. “The sergeant came and gave him a drink when he was brought in on the warrant. Davis had been arrested before on drug charges.
“They were all watching him from the control room,” Judge Rodriguez said of Davis’ final hours. “Then they lied to the Texas Ranger.”
The county judge said last week that he believes there may be valid arguments for the case that Davis’ drug intake prior to his arrest was not made known to the jail staff and that the detainee’s condition may have been terminal. He made no excuses, however, for the derogatory remarks that jailers were heard making on the audio tape.
“Davis probably had a fatal amount of chemicals in his body,” the county judge said of the detainee on the night of his final arrest. “On top of the very serious illness that he had, he was in bad shape.”