Over Easy: Texas War Veteran Dies in Custody Saying “I Can’t Breathe” 20 Times

On July 13, 2012, Sgt. James Brown, an active duty Fort Bliss soldier, self-reported to the El Paso County jail to serve a 48-hour sentence for a DUI. Brown, who had served two tours of combat duty in Iraq, wrote on a jail form that he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. According to a news report, Brown contacted his mother after he checked in to the jail, and explained that the jail now wanted him to stay for a week, and that he had decided that he “just wanted to pay the court fine and get out of here.” His mother sent the money for the fine, but James Brown never returned home. He was 26 years old.

The autopsy report said that Brown died of natural causes related to “sickle cell crisis.” Local news station KFOX14 fought “all the way to the attorney general” to obtain the video showing what happened in the jail in the moments before Brown’s death.

At some point, Brown experiences an episode of bleeding, although it is unclear where on his body he is bleeding. A staff team wearing riot gear storm the cell, restrain and shackle Brown, and perform a forced cell extraction- but Brown is not fighting. He pleads repeatedly, “I can’t breathe.” The staff carries Brown to the ‘infirmary,’ and even though Brown is audibly short of breath and his condition is obviously deteriorating, no ambulance is called. Instead of summoning help, the guards place a spit hood over his head. James Brown’s family attorney B.J. Crow described to KFOX:

B.J. Crow: “When a 26-year-old active military person checks into jail for a court-imposed sentence on a Friday, and he leaves Sunday, you know, in a casket, something went horribly wrong there. … He was bleeding out the ears, the nose, the mouth. His kidneys shut down. His blood pressure dropped to a very dangerous level. And his liver shut down.”

In the end, James Brown dies naked in a cell, not blinking or responding.

The family is suing for wrongful death.

James Brown, who survived two tours of duty as a combat soldier, was murdered. The autopsy report may also be suspect- because he would likely be alive today but for the torture at the hands of jail guards, his death was more accurately a homicide. The jail fought hard to keep the video secret. There are various versions of ‘sickle cell crisis,’ a condition that requires immediate medical attention. Brown needed to be in an ICU, not a torture chamber. I believe that the staff should be indicted, because they are dangerous.

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  1. Ruth
    May 20, 2015 at 7:40 am

    thanks, C-S, we are shamed by our large and out of control prison system, these atrocities should not be allowed, and uncovering is one step in the right direction.

  2. Marion in Savannah
    May 20, 2015 at 7:42 am

    Good morning, pups. Today we have Friedman and Bruni. The Moustache of Wisdom is having the vapors. In “Hillary, Jeb, Facebook and Disorder” he moans that huge disruptive inflections in technology, the labor market and geopolitics have the 2016 presidential candidates in a leadership quandary. He launches into his piece with a whine that the candidates don’t want “to engage with major issues of the day.” Gee, Tommy — maybe if someone in your cohort of “journalists” would, you know, actually ASK them to address issues we could find out what they think, or if they’re even capable of thinking. Christ… In “Platinum Pay in Ivory Towers” Mr. Bruni says that the excessive salaries of some college presidents send a message at odds with higher education.

    HERE they are, and

    HERE’s Krugman’s blog.

    The coffee and tea are ready, and I’ve got a variety of bagels with cream cheese this morning. How much longer are the police going to be allowed to get away with murder? And how can police departments screen out candidates likely to commit murder? (This assumes that they would actually want to…) I’m off to start my “to do” list. Have a great day.

  3. Ruth
    May 20, 2015 at 7:45 am

    thanks, Marion, the moustache covered the sound of Friedman recalling his enthusiasm for invading Iraq, maybe? Journalism failed to find and tell the truth then to be sure.

  4. Boxturtle
    May 20, 2015 at 7:46 am

    Good Morning All!

    I hope the staff is indicted. This was gross negligence resulting in death which I think is manslaughter.

    The normal official response is to deny every thing, suppress everything, and blame the victim. Their suppression has failed, it’s gonna be interesting so see how they blame this victim.

    Prediction: Suit will be settled out of court with a confidentially clause and no admission of wrongdoing.

    Boxturtle (Our jails can’t even hold a COOPERATIVE prisoner without killing him)

  5. Boxturtle
    May 20, 2015 at 7:50 am

    “actually ASK them to address issues”

    If you ask a candidate about anything he/she doesn’t want to talk about, you’ll be blown off and not invited back. Since Iraq I (at least) the media has been trading ethics and journalism for access to “Unnamed high level administration sources”.

    Boxturtle (You’d think they’d at least insist on someone they can quote)

  6. Ruth
    May 20, 2015 at 7:51 am

    Hoping for the best results.
    Gotta run off, Wednesday is wash day here

  7. tjbs
    May 20, 2015 at 8:18 am

    Good morning all,
    Back when they taught history the extremes were Greece and Sparta. I was glad we were more like Greece and moving away from the Spartan model, then the violent segment blew away our President, who was trending to the Greece model, in broad daylight. That seems to me be the turn to mean bully country we’ve devolved to.
    Maybe the return to the Democratic Greece model will be the choice for the survivors of the final play with the nukes nut cases.

  8. Alice X
    May 20, 2015 at 8:29 am

    The humanity

    And the inhumanity.

  9. karenjj2
    May 20, 2015 at 8:51 am

    good morning, c-s and pups of fire,

    as Walt Kelley said via Pogo: we have met the enemy and he is us ….

    8:50a edt

  10. JamesJoyce
    May 20, 2015 at 9:10 am

    An active duty combat vet from Iraq is sentenced to two days in jail, and Prison officials decide they want to keep him for a week when the sentence was 48 hours, in lieu of paying a fine? Is this correct? This was not a sentence handed down for murder, rape or any other number of egregious offenses. This was an OUI case.

    Did we just witnessed another “life” snuffed out as on Staten Isle? Yes!!!

    An active duty combat vet is now dead? We are indeed a sick society! This is anything but exceptional. I sure hope this guy has some buddies, seasoned combat veterans, considering he did two tours in Iraq? Maybe his platoon can get some justice for their fellow soldier murdered by how many men dressed like they work for Darth Vader as robot with a M-16 and the now dead man with no weapons attacked by five men dressed for a hockey game?

    Due process was an illusion in fascist Germany. Due process is quickly becoming an illusion here. Do we have murder and a cover-up of a US active Duty Solider, who self reported on a DUI charge?

    Murder under the color of law, is still murder. Comply with this fascist bastards (“1”) This is sickening to watch!

    What was he injected with?

    Is this the same “El Paso” jail where this incident occurred?

  11. Shutter
    May 20, 2015 at 9:21 am

    Legalizing torture outside the US border only makes it easier to legalize torture inside the US border. Those are some mean chickens when THEY come home to roost.

  12. Frederick Leatherman
    May 20, 2015 at 10:01 am

    James Brown was suffering from DIsseminated Intravascular Dissemination (DIC), a serious disorder in which the proteins that control blood clotting become over active. From Medicine Plus,

    When you are injured, proteins in the blood that form blood clots travel to the injury site to help stop bleeding. If you have DIC, these proteins become abnormally active throughout the body. This may be due to inflammation, infection, or cancer.

    Small blood clots form in the blood vessels. Some of these clots can clog the vessels and
    cut off blood supply to organs such as the liver, brain, or kidneys. Lack of blood flow can damage the organ and it may stop working properly.

    Over time, the clotting proteins in your blood are consumed or “used up.” When this happens, you have a high risk of serious bleeding, even from a minor injury or without injury. You may also have bleeding that starts spontaneously (on its own). The disease can also cause healthy red blood cells to break up when they travel through the small vessels that are filled with clots.

    Immobilizing the patient in four point restraints and silencing him with a spit-hood that also covers his face concealing his bleeding from onlookers is not a recommended treatment as the prognosis is quite poor.

    It is, however, an excellent way to kill someone while maximizing their pain and suffering without having to endure a lot of begging for help and disruptive screaming.

    Although he did not know it, Brown also had sickle cell anemia, a disease in which your body produces abnormally shaped red blood cells. The cells are shaped like a crescent or sickle. They don’t last as long as normal, round red blood cells. This leads to anemia. The sickle cells also get stuck in blood vessels, blocking blood flow. This can cause pain and organ damage.

  13. Frederick Leatherman
    May 20, 2015 at 10:03 am

    Yes, it’s definitely manslaughter by gross negligence.

  14. Canyon2
    May 20, 2015 at 10:11 am

    Good morning everyone.
    Thank you for the post Crane-Station.
    It appears that young men who go to war for this country’s policies become useless after they have served their time…and expendable.

  15. karenjj2
    May 20, 2015 at 10:20 am

    wow, JJ, that article screams murder starting with “G4S police chief” and goes downhill from there.

  16. Molly
    May 20, 2015 at 10:26 am

    Good morning everyone, drive-by here. So far I haven’t seen any indication that brutal prison officials — or brutal cops — are being dealt with appropriately. The mayhem continues, and those responsible are frantic to keep them secret. Although a small comfort is that the issues are now a national conversation and not swept under the proverbial rug.

  17. karenjj2
    May 20, 2015 at 10:32 am

    thank you so much for your daily posts, Marion; very appreciated. krugman’s 19 may post and his link to Daniel Davies ’04 post is on my fwd list.


  18. Alice X
    May 20, 2015 at 11:02 am

    Say Her Name: Families Seek Justice in Overlooked Police Killings of African-American Women

  19. gratuitous
    May 20, 2015 at 11:23 am

    The magic words are “excited delirium syndrome” whereby a person being tortured to death, in justifiable mortal fear for his life at the hands of his jailers, experiences shortness of breath, rapid heart beat, and other life-threatening symptoms. When the inevitable happens, it’s a matter of a paid medical professional parsing out the decedent’s final moments until they get to a point where his body failed all by itself, without warning and nothing could be done.

    Of course, to us lumpenproletariats, it looks like the victim was tortured to death, but we’re not licensed medical professionals, are we? Too bad, so sad. Another vacancy filled at the cemetery, and the murderers go back to work tomorrow.

  20. JamesJoyce
    May 20, 2015 at 11:57 am

    So if he had paid the fine and done no time would he have been alive five days later?

  21. Frederick Leatherman
    May 20, 2015 at 2:38 pm

    Mr. Brown’s life likely could have been saved by prompt medical care.

    Memo to All Jail Staff:

    If you see an inmate who is complaining about difficulty breathing and he or she has visible symptoms of hemorrhagic bleeding, such as bleeding out of every pore and orifice of the body, call 911 immediately and summon an ambulance. The inmate urgently requires medical intervention in a hospital ICU.

  22. Frederick Leatherman
    May 20, 2015 at 2:46 pm

    I think the despicable psychological and physical torture of inmates at Abu Ghraib by US military personnel thrilled, rather than horrified, a lot of people who work in law enforcement and especially in corrections. Sadists.

  23. Chris Maukonen
    May 20, 2015 at 3:33 pm

    This is assuming the jail staff gives a shit.

  24. Alice X
    May 20, 2015 at 4:56 pm

    Or didn’t kill him in the first place.

  25. disqus_tu7SEHpgGp
    May 20, 2015 at 5:32 pm

    No. It is not just manslaughter. There is a premeditated aspect to not training prison personnel and not providing some sort of medical clinic. It would be like a captain deliberately not carrying enough lifeboats because, cost. Or an architect deliberately not providing enough stairwells, etc. We need to quit passing off such as manslaughter and make “management” accountable, in a big way.

  26. Frederick Leatherman
    May 20, 2015 at 6:50 pm

    Actually, murder requires proof of intent to kill and I believe that would be difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt in this case.

    Failure to adequately train staff to deal with health emergencies is grossly negligent conduct. In other words, it’s a failure to exercise reasonable care when dealing with an inmate health emergency and the failure to do so constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care.

    Gross negligence is also called criminal negligence. A gross or criminally negligent act that causes death is manslaughter.

  27. Frederick Leatherman
    May 20, 2015 at 6:54 pm

    Staff failed to exhibit any concern for him and there probably isn’t anyway to make them care. The purpose of the memo would be to avoid liability for the wrongful death of the inmate.

  28. Frederick Leatherman
    May 20, 2015 at 7:08 pm

    Apparently, he was thinking of opting to serve extra time in jail to pay off the fine instead of paying it. Usually, an inmate can reduce the fine by serving extra time at the rate of $30/day served. His sentence was 48 hours, plus a fine and court costs, and he wanted to pay the fine and costs by serving the extra time. I don’t know if he had served the 48 hours when he got sick or if he was still serving the 48 hours. Even if he had paid the fine, he still would have had to serve the 48 hours because it’s mandatory for a DUI conviction.

  29. Dwight Burdick
    May 21, 2015 at 3:16 am

    Manslaughter obviously, and at a minimum.


    After the initial “take down” was continued overwhelming
    force required?

    Was pepper spray used? Was pepper spray the reason for
    soaking his face and head under a running faucet?

    Why was his initial and repeated complaint, “I can’t
    breathe” never responded to?

    Did he at any time spit, or was the face mask applied for
    preventive reasons? Why was the face mask reapplied after he repeatedly
    complained of difficulty breathing?

    Why was he not permitted to sit on the floor or lie down (a
    predictable response of someone with low blood pressure) as he requested and as
    his physical distress progressively increased, in the presence of overwhelming correctional
    officer presence?

    Why was there never involvement by EMS until he was transported
    to the hospital to be pronounced dead?

    Was the investigation an internal one involving only correctional
    officers and or police?

    Was there any consultation with a military Physician
    specialist from the nearby comprehensive military hospital reviewing his
    military medical chart during the investigation?

    Medical malpractice, almost without doubt.


    What drug(s) was administered (and by an individual with
    what credentials)? Was it either lorazepam (Ativan) and/or haloperidol (Haldol)
    as widely reported? Was the person administering the medication aware that severe
    respiratory depression (inadequate breathing) and low blood pressure are
    predictable complications of lorazepam, especially when give as an injection,
    and severe low blood pressure is a predictable complication of haloperidol,
    especially when given as an injection? Was consideration given to the fact that
    he was episodically replaced in an upright sitting position (significantly
    aggravating low blood pressure related to sedative medication injections) even
    as his physical resistance subsided?

    What role did a licensed Physician play? None? A signed
    standing order not identifying a specific individual? A telephone consultation
    in this specific case? The actual presence of a Physician? Near the end, was
    the second medical person (the female? in maroon) a licensed Physician? Is the
    administration of the jail aware that a good faith medical examination under
    the supervision of a licensed Physician during some part of a medical
    intervention (at least at the end of the intervention), especially one involving
    the forced administration of medication, is required by law?

    Why was no measurement of his blood pressure or pulse
    oximetry (oxygen saturation) ever made in the obviously well equipped jail
    medical facility after he appeared to be more calm and sedated, or in the
    holding cell where he apparently died? Why did no one listen to his chest (an
    individual with a stethoscope was present in the jail medical facility and

    Was dehydration considered when he requested water? In
    Sickle Cell Disease, dehydration along with stress may contribute to Sickle
    Cell Crisis.

    According to his military record did he actually have
    either Sickle Cell Trait or Sickle Cell Disease in addition to PTSD? If he had
    Sickle Cell Disease did the medical examiner consider the possibility that he
    suffered from Acute Chest Syndrome, a predictable complication with a
    significant risk of death?

    Was any aspect of this episode reported to or
    investigated by the Texas State Board of Medical Examiners (the appropriate licensing

    Racial/economic bias


    Was his jail stay extended because he did not (or could
    not) pay a fine?

    What was the racial makeup of the correctional officer

    Has there been complaints of racial or economic bias in
    the past against the facility?

  30. dubinsky
    May 21, 2015 at 3:37 pm

    you’re quite right about that.

    moving Texas inside of the US borders might also have been a mistake.

  31. dubinsky
    May 21, 2015 at 3:40 pm

    quite many people make the mistake of viewing those that they define as enemies as deserving of barbaric treatment.

    it sure ain’t just law enforcement personnel in that group..

  32. Frederick Leatherman
    May 23, 2015 at 8:16 am