Appeals court sides with mother suing COs over son's attempted suicide

Suit claims that two Knox County Jail corrections officers were deliberately indifferent to a man who later attempted suicide by hanging himself five years ago

By Stephen Betts
Bangor Daily News

BOSTON — A lawsuit that claims that two Knox County Jail corrections officers were deliberately indifferent to a man who later attempted suicide by hanging himself five years ago will go forward following a ruling by a federal appeals court.

The attorney representing the two jail officers, however, said he plans to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear an appeal of the lower court’s ruling on immunity for the corrections officers.

The First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Aug. 22 against the two jail officers —Dane Winslow and Angela Escorsio — who were trying to have the case thrown out.

Winslow then asked the appeals court to reconsider its ruling and that request was rejected by the court in Boston on Sept. 16. On Sept. 24, the appellate panel also rejected his request to have the case remain in the Boston court until he and his lawyer could decide whether to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the matter.

On Thursday, the court formally ordered the case returned to the U.S. District Court in Portland, where the matter will be scheduled for a trial, barring a settlement.

Knox County reached a partial settlement in April on the case brought in September 2011 by Cathy Penn on behalf of her son Matthew Lalli. Lalli, who was 22 at the time of the incident, suffered severe, permanent brain damage after he was found hanging in his jail cell on Oct. 5, 2009. Her lawsuit states that the cost of her son’s care in an institution will exceed $9 million.

Penn alleged in her lawsuit that the county violated her son’s constitutional rights because of its deliberate indifference to his threats that he was going to kill himself.

In September 2013, a federal judge dismissed the case against the county, the sheriff’s office, Sheriff Donna Dennison, the jail, Jail Administrator John Hinkley, supervisor Kathy Carver and officers Warren Heath IV and Julie Stilkey.

Both sides filed appeals to the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston. The partial settlement reached in April with the county resulted in the claims against corrections officers Christopher Truppa, Robert Wood, Warren Heath III and Bradley Woll being dismissed. Knox County’s attorney Peter Marchesi has declined to reveal the settlement offer until the case against the two remaining defendants is completed.

Winslow was shift supervisor when Lalli was brought in. Escorsio was a corrections officer on duty the day Lalli tried to kill himself.

Marchesi said that while the U.S. Supreme Court accepts only a few appeals, he believes this case will be heard because he maintains the lower court’s ruling that the officers do not have qualified immunity is in direct contradiction with a previous high court ruling.

According to testimony obtained through depositions taken of various jail officials and included in the court records, the following version of events occurred:

Lalli had been arrested Saturday, Oct. 3, 2009, for an alleged assault and was taken to the Knox County Jail. He also was charged with violating his probation for allegedly being intoxicated.

Lalli had struggled with mental health and substance abuse problems for years. He had been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric addiction and recovery center at Pen Bay Medical Center in Rockport two weeks before his arrest. Lalli and his then 3-year-old daughter lived with Penn.

On Monday morning, Oct. 5, 2009, Lalli stated to a jail officer that if he could not get out of jail that day to see his daughter, it would be better if he was not alive at all. At his initial court appearance that afternoon on the new charges, Lalli was overheard by several people, including an assistant district attorney, stating that he had nothing to live for if he could not be released to see his daughter.

The judge at the hearing ordered Lalli held without bail. Lalli became upset and began crying. As he was being returned to the jail, he was screaming hysterically and threatening suicide, according to the court documents.

The jail van returned Lalli to the jail at about 2:35 p.m. At the jail, Lalli made several loud threats to kill himself, the documents indicate. Lalli was strip searched at 2:52 p.m., and he still was crying. He was allowed to make a telephone call, and an officer heard him say he would rather die if he could not have his daughter.

Assistant Jail Administrator Carver directed that Lalli be put on a suicide watch.

There were two cells at the jail for inmates at risk of suicide. One was occupied by another male on watch. The other was vacant, but it was adjacent to a cell occupied by a female. Jail officers decided to move her to another cell so Lalli could be placed in the suicide watch cell.

But at 3 p.m., he was placed in a regular cell, and his bedding was not removed while jail officials attended to other matters, according to the court records.

There was conflicting testimony about whether Lalli was checked at 3:15 p.m., but according to the jail log, at 3:30 p.m., he was checked and found to be hanging by bed sheets strung from a privacy partition in the cell.

Penn is represented by attorneys from Pierce Atwood law firm in Portland.

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