State attorney: Fla. COs contributed to inmate's death, but didn't break law

COs at a Florida prison will not be prosecuted after Jose G. Villegas, 39, died following a struggle with officers


By Frank Stanfield
Daily Commercial, Leesburg, Fla.

TAVARES, Fla. — Guards at Lake Correctional Institution struggling with a combative prisoner who overdosed on drugs contributed to his death, but they will not be prosecuted because they did not break the law, State Attorney Brad King has concluded.

Jose G. Villegas, 39, died on March 28 "after multiple corrections officers used force to restrain him," Assistant State Attorney Jimmie Sparrow wrote in a September memo to King.

Prisons are full of violent, sometimes mentally ill, even drugged prisoners, but use of force is often controversial. A 2016 study by the University of North Florida showed that LCI leads the state in guard-to-inmate violence, with nearly 45 incidents per 100 prisoners. By comparison, Florida State Prison and Union Correctional, home to death row, report 28 incidents per 100 prisoners.

The State Attorney's Office has not completed its review of a prisoner's death at the hands of another inmate. Adonis Boone was stabbed to death at the Clermont prison in July. The suspect's name in that case is Antonio Carter, 44, officials say. Prosecutors just received the investigative report a few days ago. Carter was sentenced to 40 years in prison in 2007 for carjacking and robbery without a weapon.

Villegas had a long history of criminal activity, mostly possession and sale of cocaine, but also battery on law enforcement officers and rescue workers.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement said corrections officers were doing routine checks when they looked through a small window in the cell door and saw Villegas lying on the floor with another inmate standing over him.

Not sure if there had been a fight, they put shackles and handcuffs in front of him since he was lying on his back.

When they realized he was unconscious they did a "sternum rub," which revived him, and he became combative.

The other prisoner said he had ingested synthetic cannabinoids known as "K2." The drugs, which have been a problem at the prison, make prisoners violent, the report said.

Villegas grabbed the guards' arms and tried to bite them when the officers tried to move the handcuffs behind him. It took at least six officers to hold down the 5-foot-10, 280-pound man.

Investigators looking at security camera video said: "Ultimately, the officers were successful in getting the handcuffs moved and Villegas was sat upright next to a table. At this point Villegas appears motionless, and his head was slumped over. The officers were visibly exhausted and out of breath from the lengthy struggle. It is unclear whether Villegas was still breathing at this point, but officers placed Villegas in a wheelchair and took him to "F" dorm for medical treatment."

Once they arrived they realized he was not breathing and the officers and medical staff activated a defibrillator and started doing CPR. They also sent for a doctor and called Lake EMS. He was sent to South Lake Hospital where he was pronounced dead.

The Medical Examiner's office determined the cause of death was "restraint asphyxia with a contributing cause of excited delirium. A toxicology test showed he had synthetic cannabinoids in his system."

"While it is possible that due to the 'K2' in his system, and the fact that Villegas was restrained when he became conscious that he reacted abnormally, the officers had to deal with Villegas' reaction at the time," the report concluded.

Officers told him repeatedly to quit struggling. "In addition, the video does not show any officers using an excessive amount of force (i.e. kicking, punching, choking, etc.)

The assistant state attorney said use of force was justified, but he also noted: "after conferring with Dr. Wendy Lavezzi of the Medical Examiner's Office, some medical research suggests alternative approaches to dealing with people who have ingested synethetic cannabinoids. I have forwarded this information to the Department of Corrections."

"After consideration, I agree with the conclusion and recommendation contained in the memorandum," King wrote in a letter to Julie Jones, secretary of the Department of Corrections. "Accordingly, this office will take no further action in the matter."

It is not what clear what "alternative approaches" are available to guards dealing with violent, overdosed prisoners, but restraint holds can be deadly and extremely controversial.

The 2014 death of an unarmed New York man selling untaxed cigarettes who had been put into a police choke hold sparked a national protest movement.

UNF's study, "In Their Eyes, Florida Prison Reform From Inmates' Perspectives," was conducted by journalism students and professor Paula Horvath, Ph.D., a former reporter with the Daily Commercial.

The report cites statewide understaffed, inexperienced officers as one of the key problems.

©2017 Daily Commercial, Leesburg, Fla.

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