Searching for Justice: Inmate’s Death Caused by Jailers, State Concludes
July 11, 2014  //  By:   //  Human Rights Watch, Investigative Reports  //  No Comment

(Story by Carol Thompson) The death of an inmate at the Onondaga County, NY, Correctional Facilities had drawn the attention of the Civil Liberties Union and the League of United Latino American Citizens and now has the attention of one lawyer who is assisting the widow of the inmate after the door to justice was slammed in her face.

A federal judge has thrown out a lawsuit against Onondaga County filed by the widow of Raul Pinet Jr., an inmate who died Aug. 6, 2010, while sheriff’s deputies restrained him.

Tashara Pinet, the widow of Pinet, did not establish that the county had a custom, practice or policy that led to his death in August 2010, while he was being restrained at the Justice Center jail, U.S. District Judge Gary Sharpe recently ruled.

Pinet, 31, died shortly after deputies handcuffed him and restrained him face down on the floor of a cell. The Onondaga County Medical Examiner ruled Pinet died due to being in a state of “excited delirium” caused by cocaine use. But the New York State Commission of Correction called the Aug. 6, 2010, death of Pinet a homicide, caused by “asphyxia during restraint.”

According to the report issued by the commission, Pinet stopped moving five minutes after he was brought into a timeout room. Deputies had placed a “spit hood” over his face and it had become displaced so the non-mesh part was covering his face. Three minutes later, as deputies knelt on Pinet’s back and neck, he died.

The medical review board watched a videotape from the jail and concluded:

*At 8:52 p.m., a “spit hood” that deputies had placed over Pinet’s face had become displaced so the non-mesh part covered his face.

*At 8:55 p.m., with Pinet continuing to struggle and yell, deputies started kneeling on his neck and upper back, over his lung cavity. Within 45 seconds, he stopped moving.

*Deputies then left Pinet alone in the room for seven minutes before going back in to assess his condition. They didn’t go in sooner because they believed he was faking.

His widow claimed deputies suffocated him while they restrained him.

Wrongful death claim takes a wrong turn

Tashara Pinet hired a local attorney, Brian Roy, to file a wrongful death claim. Roy filed in federal court and the case was tossed out.

Mrs. Pinet was never told that her case was dismissed last November. Roy then filed an appeal, unbeknown to the plaintiff.

A state court action has survived, and in early May Pinet hired Manlius, NY-based attorney Mark David Blum. Blum has filed in state court on her behalf. A judge will have both his case and Roy’s case. It will likely be up to the judge to decide which moves forward, Blum said, adding that Roy’s case is filed on his own behalf and not Mrs. Pinet.

Blum’s case states, “On November 26, 2013, pursuant to an Order of Hon. Gary Sharpe, C.J., the federal causes of action brought by Plaintiff against defendants were dismissed due to failure of counsel to properly plead and proceed under federal and local rules.”

The Court specifically declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over any then-pending state law claims, leaving them viable and unresolved. (The Court misidentified in its’ Order what were the remaining pending state law claims).”

Among the allegations against Onondaga County, Blum alleged that, “Somewhere during this process, upon reliable information and belief, “someone” among the sworn staff of the Syracuse Police Department kicked Pinet in the mouth with such force as to result in broken teeth and blood coming out of Pinet’s mouth.

“That as Pinet was trying to clear debris from his mouth, deputies claimed Pinet got spittle on one of their boots resulting in an announcement that Pinet was allegedly ‘spitting’ and the order was given for a spit hood to be placed over Pinet’s head.”

Roy could not be reached for comment.

Blum said a hearing has been scheduled for August 20.

Not the first inmate death

In 2012, Onondaga County admitted it was employee negligence that caused the death of a jail inmate three years prior from a ruptured ectopic pregnancy.

Chuniece Patterson, 21, died Nov. 12, 2009, at the Onondaga County Justice Center jail, 14 hours after she started complaining in her cell about abdominal pain.

As with the Pinet matter, the state Commission of Correction determined that a nurse acted with incompetence by misinterpreting and minimizing the significance of Patterson’s vomiting and complaints of pain, and that a sheriff’s deputy ignored obvious signs that Patterson needed help.

Patterson’s death came 13 years after another inmate, Lucinda Batts, suffered a similar death at the Justice Center. After her death from a ruptured ectopic pregnancy, the state recommended changes in the jail’s policy and training of employees.  

About the Author :

Carol Thompson is a veteran investigative reporter residing in central New York. She spent 23 years with a local newspaper, The Valley News, before leaving for the Syracuse New Times, and now, VNN. Thompson has won dozens of first-place awards for investigative reporting and was the 2006 recipient of the Syracuse Press Club’s prestigious Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award. Thompson’s reporting has resulted in the arrest of public officials and has prompted policy changes. She uncovered two money laundering schemes that traveled the globe and resulted in the indictments of several developers.