Inquiry into Houston jail death continues; some blame type of restraint

By Robert Crowe
The Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON Prosecutors have closed a criminal investigation into the June 9 death of a Houston jail inmate without filing charges, but HPD's internal affairs division is still probing whether wrongdoing may have contributed to Johnell Patrick's death while hogtied in a padded cell.

Coroners ruled the death an accident caused by acute cocaine and ethanol toxicity. The autopsy report also noted multiple blunt force injuries, including a subscalp hemorrhage and acute rib fractures.

The incident has some calling for a review of the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office autopsy to determine whether the hogtie restraint led to suffocation.

"Someone needs to take a closer look at this," said Dr. Donald Winston, a Houston emergency room surgeon who has questioned the autopsy findings. "He could have suffocated in that position."

'Interlocking' allowed

Many law enforcement agencies, including the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, prohibit hogtie restraints because they have been linked to suffocation deaths due to positional asphyxia. The practice involves cuffing hands and legs behind the back while a person lies face-down.

Video taken from inside Patrick's cell shows that he is restrained with hands and legs behind his back.

Houston Police Department officials said their policy prohibits hogtying prisoners but allows the use of "interlocking," which involves cuffing hands and legs at the same time on violent or unpredictable people.

"If you feel that the suspect can do harm to him or herself or the officer, then you can use these interlocking devices," said HPD spokesman John Cannon. He would not explain how interlocking is different from hogtying.

Cannon said the internal affairs investigation will look at the officers' tactics to determine if they violated policies. "That includes: Did those officers at the time believe that that individual could have been a harm to himself or others?" Cannon said.

Chief Harold Hurtt said Monday he would review the restraint policy to see if there is room for improvement.

HPD has about six months from the time of the incident to investigate.

The day Patrick's autopsy report was completed in August, the Harris County District Attorney's Office closed its criminal case. It was not referred to a grand jury, which some find troubling.

"When my other son went to identify Johnell, he said that wasn't his brother," said the man's mother, Arthur Lee Patrick. "They did something to him in that jail."

Police said Patrick, 35, was "combative and erratic" when booked into the jail following a disturbance call to his home in the 9200 block of Denton. Court records show Patrick had three drug convictions.

"He thought someone was trying to kill him and he kept seeing a light, so we called the police," his mother said.

When police arrived about 1:20 a.m., they learned Patrick had city warrants. He was arrested and taken to HPD's southeast jail at 8300 Mykawa and placed in a padded cell.

Arthur Lee Patrick said police should have taken her son straight to a hospital because it was apparent he was having a mental health problem.

"I told them when they drove off not to hurt my son," she said.

Medical specialist fired

The city of Houston this month fired jail medical specialist Ram Chellaram for failing to adequately treat Patrick when he was admitted to the jail.

"Chellaram would not examine him (and) wouldn't release him to go to the hospital," said Catherine Troisi, the city's assistant director of disease prevention and control.

Chellaram insists he was a scapegoat because police violated protocol by booking Patrick into the jail then hogtying him before asking medical specialists to check him or refer him to a hospital.

The medical specialist said he could not check the man's vital signs because he was violently struggling while his hands and legs were secured behind his back with handcuffs.

Chellaram said he saw violent inmates in padded cells almost every week, but Patrick was the first one he had seen hogtied by police in his seven years at the jail.

After a number of positional asphyxia deaths linked to hogtying in the 1990s, many law enforcement agencies banned the practice. The Ohio prison system and Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office are among those that prohibit it.

Still, independent pathologist Dr. Vincent DiMaio said recent studies have cast doubt on any link between hogtie restraints and positional asphyxia.

Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle

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