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Appeals court overturns former Ohio county jail director’s conviction

Prosecutors claim ex-Cuyahoga County Jail director Ken Mills mismanaged the facility and created inhumane conditions

Ken Mills sentencing

Ex-Cuyahoga County Jail Director Ken Mills is handcuffed after a judge sentenced him to nine months in jail.

Photo/Cory Shaffer of via TNS

By Cory Shaffer

CLEVELAND — An appeals court on Thursday threw out the conviction of the former Cuyahoga County Jail director who prosecutors said mismanaged the facility and created inhumane conditions.

A divided three-judge panel of the 8th Ohio District Court of Appeals held that Ken Mills deserves a new trial because the judge at his original trial wrongly allowed the jury to hear testimony that several inmates had died during or shortly after his tenure.

Such testimony denied Mills a fair trial, the panel said, because special prosecutors with the Ohio Attorney General’s Office did not charge him with any crimes related to the deaths.

Judges Cornelius O’Sullivan and Emanuella Groves took most issue with prosecutors presenting to jurors a photograph of an inmate hunched over on the floor in the minutes before he died.

O’Sullivan wrote in the opinion that the photo was “most egregious” and prosecutors used it “solely to inflame and improperly influence the jury.”

Judge Lisa Forbes wrote in a dissent that she believed the evidence was admissible because Mills was charged with failing to provide adequate shelter and medical care to inmates.

All three judges noted that there was sufficient evidence outside of the deaths to convict Mills.

A spokesman for Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost’s office said prosecutors are reviewing the court’s opinion to determine their next step. Prosecutors could ask the panel to refer the case to the full 8th District bench or ultimately appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Mills’ appellate attorney, Louis Grube, hailed the ruling.

[PREVIOUS: Convicted Ohio jail director ‘needs to become a prisoner himself,’ prosecutors say in pre-sentencing filings]

“We’re obviously happy with the ruling and looking forward to a new, fair trial,” Mills’ appellate attorney, Louis Grube, told and The Plain Dealer. “Everyone deserves fairness in court.”

Mills, 56, was found guilty of two counts each of dereliction of duty and falsification, following a three-week trial the ended Sept. 10, 2021. The jury acquitted him of the only felony charge in the indictment, tampering with records.

Assistant Ohio Attorney Generals Dan Kasaris, Linda Powers and Matthew Meyer took the case to trial and argued that Mills, who was hired in 2015 to regionalize the county jail and merge it with jails in Euclid, Bedford and Cleveland, ignored multiple warnings about inmate and officer safety during his push to finish the project.

The county facility downtown was already overcrowded and understaffed when Mills brought in hundreds of new inmates from those jails. He also interfered with the facility’s medical director to hire more nurses and told Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish’s administration that there was no money in the budget for more nurses. Mills also changed the jail’s policies to allow corrections officers, instead of nurses, to conduct medical screenings of inmates when they were booked into the jail.

Mills’ decisions created such dire conditions in the jail that inmates were not getting the proper medical care they needed. The jail then experienced its deadliest span in history, with nine inmates dying in less than 18 months. The deaths led Budish to fire Mills, bring in the U.S. Marshals Service to inspect the jail and issue a report that first revealed what it called “inhumane conditions.”

Meyer began his opening statement in Mills’ trial by discussing the death of Joseph Arquillo, who overdosed eight hours after he was booked into the jail. Meyer also showed jurors a photo of Arquillo hunched over on the floor as a deputy sat nearby reading a newspaper.

[EARLIER: Jury convicts ex-Ohio jail director for mismanaging jail, lying to county council]

Patricia Cosgrove, a former Summit County judge who heard the case because Cuyahoga County judges recused themselves, initially told prosecutors to limit their mentions of the deaths and reminded jurors that Mills was not charged with directly causing any of the deaths.

Several witnesses mentioned Arquillo’s death, the death of Brenden Kiekisz, who died by suicide after not receiving a medical screening that could have caught that he had suicidal thoughts. The jury also heard that the 2009 death of famed R&B singer Sean LeVert that sparked the county to partner with MetroHealth to provide medical care to the inmates.

The 8th District’s opinion held that even the mention of LeVert’s death was prejudicial to Mills.

Prosecutors argued the evidence was admissible as background evidence to show the consequences of Mills’ decisions that created dangerous conditions in the jail.

Forbes in her dissent agreed with that position, and she noted that out of 28 witnesses and 200 exhibits, a small portion of the state’s evidence dealt with inmate deaths and that only three inmates were mentioned by name.

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