Wrongful Death Suit Alleges Harris County Jailers Killed Detainee

Harris County Jail officers in riot gear piled on top of detainee Kenneth Lucas (in orange) in 2014.
Harris County Jail officers in riot gear piled on top of detainee Kenneth Lucas (in orange) in 2014.

About a year and a half after Kenneth Lucas' demise in Harris County Jail, his family is filing a wrongful death lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims that in February 2014 Harris County jailers "forcibly restrained Mr. Lucas in a hogtie position, employed a powerful sedative to restrain him, and suffocated and killed Mr. Lucas." 

The complaint says Lucas was arrested for allegedly violating a civil child custody order and detained in Harris County Jail. The lawsuit says that three days later Lucas "became upset" while in lockup and officers wearing riot gear raided his cell; officials have said Lucas broke the smoke detector in his cell and used the pieces to sharpen a small piece of metal, which he refused to turn over to the guards.

According to the complaint, the officers pinned Lucas face-down on the floor, handcuffed him, broke his finger, shackled his feet, and sat on him despite Lucas saying he was going to "pass out." He was then hogtied, placed face-down on a stretcher, and carted to the jail infirmary as officers continued to pin him down to the stretcher. One officer was sitting on Lucas' lower body as the others carried the stretcher away.

Six minutes later, the lawsuit says, Lucas cried out: "I cannot breathe!"

Shortly after that, Lucas' voice lessened to a mumble— a little later, he went completely silent. Then, still hogtied, his eyes rolled back into his head and he stopped moving. According to the lawsuit, Lucas had become unconscious by that point.

But jailers kept Lucas hogtied and even injected a strong sedative into his hip, according to the lawsuit. On the first try the needle broke, so they injected him again. According to the lawsuit, Lucas was motionless for several more minutes. The officers continued to place pressure on Lucas' hands and legs as the infirmary employee took his blood pressure. Then they un-tied Lucas and flipped him over so the infirmary employee could attempt to resuscitate him. But by that point, the lawsuit says, Lucas was already dead. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards later counted the death as an in-custody homicide.

One of the officers videotaped the entire incident. It's grisly, but you can watch it here:

While a grand jury cleared the officers of any criminal wrongdoing in February, the lawsuit claims the officers' use of force was "objectively unreasonable." It also claims then-Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia ignored a 2009 Memorandum from the Department of Justice— a 24-page report detailing the results of an investigation into the Harris County Jail. The report found "inherent systemic problems with jail procedures," including poor medical care for detainees, lack of access to mental health treatment, inadequate suicide prevention, and excessive use of force.

"We have serious concerns about the use of force in the jail," the Department of Justice report said. "Harris County Jail does not train staff that hogtying and choke holds are dangerous, prohibited practices. Indeed, we found a significant number of incidents where staff used inappropriate force techniques. As a result of systemic deficiencies including a lack of appropriate policies and training, the jail exposes detainees to harm or risk of harm from excessive use of force." 

The report made many remedial recommendations, including the prohibition of "chokeholds and hogtying."

Here's the Department of Justice's 2009 report:  

Here's the full complaint Lucas's family filed in federal court Tuesday:

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