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Denver Inmate’s Death Calls Attention to Disturbing Use of Restraints in Jails

Michael Marshall, a fifty year-old homeless black man in Denver, Colorado, who was jailed for trespassing, died while officers restrained him. His death has received a substantial amount of attention. Sadly, there is not much that is unique about Marshall’s case. A survey of news reports from the last three years show what happened is very similar to recent deaths involving restraint, chairs, and spit hoods.

With bail set at $100, Marshall died in jail on November 11, 2015, after choking on his vomit. It was four days after he had been arrested.

In January, District Attorney Mitch Morrissey of Denver, Colorado, declined to bring charges against officers.

The city refused to release video footage of the November 11, 2015, incident at the Denver Detention Center to Marshall’s family, and declined the Denver Post’s requests under the state’s Open Records Act. But the Colorado Independent successfully sued the city and published nearly an hour of surveillance camera footage.

Thanks to their efforts, the public can see Marshall’s thin shirtless figure pace the length of a small jail hallway, as he drags clothing behind him.

An officer orders him to sit. After speaking with officers for about one minute, Marshall leans against a wall beside them. Four officers seize him and take his body to the ground.

He was restrained face-down on the floor. The officers placed him in wrist and ankle restraints, and covered his head with a spit hood—designed to protect them from blood, saliva and bites, but which also makes it very difficult to breathe. Marshall asphyxiated on his vomit.

Marshall was taken to the hospital after the incident, and eventually taken off life support on November 20. The coroner ruled his death a homicide. His history of mental illness and substance abuse, combined with heart and lung disease, were also suspected of contributing to his death. An autopsy report revealed his body was covered with bruises and abrasions. His family is expected to file a lawsuit.

Shadowproof compiled data on 30 similar deaths. Because of the varying jurisdictions at the local, state and federal level, and a lack of relevant public record-keeping or journalism on the topic, it was difficult to compile cases.

Requests for updates or more information from government agencies were submitted, but questions about a number of cases went unanswered.

Of the 30 deaths found, 18 people died from a restraint-related incident within one week of their incarceration. Eight died within one day.

Sixteen of those who died suffered from mental illnesses, while eight had prior physical health issues or engaged in substance abuse.

Fifteen of the dead were in their thirties; six were in their twenties or teens, three in their forties, and six in their fifties and sixties.

The youngest case involved 19 year-old Daniel Linsinbigler Jr. After refusing to submit to handcuffs, Linsinbigler was hit with mace and placed in a restraint chair with a spit hood “because he was secreting mucus and saliva due to the pepper spray.” Ten minutes later, he was found dead.

Like Michael Marshall, 19 inmates died after being placed in the prone position, and nine were outfitted with a spit mask or helmet (two of which choked on their vomit).

Fourteen died in restraint chairs. Ten were killed in incidents involving tasers or pepper spray.

In six cases, people died of heart attacks or complications from heart disease. In four cases, individuals asphyxiated and choked on their vomit. Two died while having seizures.

Inmates were subject to brutal tactics in numerous cases. Twenty-seven year-old David Yearby died with a broken neck in 2014 after he was beaten, maced, hooded, and left in a restraint chair for nine hours. The cause of his death was ruled “undetermined,” and no charges were filed against the officers involved.

There were 10 homicide rulings, but officers were prosecuted only three times. Only once, in the case of 21 year-old Matthew Ajibade, were there convictions.

One officer in Ajibade’s case was sentenced to one month of jail, to be served on the weekends, while others were fined and placed on probation.

Prosecutors declined to press charges in 21 of the 31 cases. Seven lawsuits were filed, and one settled.

In five cases, “excited delirium” was listed as the cause of death—a controversial diagnosis used exclusively in cases involving law enforcement, and promoted aggressively by Taser International that effectively absolves both of accountability.

Natasha McKenna and Alphie Herrera were subject to spit masks, the prone position, restraint chairs and tasers and/or mace when they died behind bars. In both cases, excited delirium was listed as the cause of death, and charges were not filed against officers.

Two cases were ruled accidental, and the causes of five deaths were “undetermined.” For the rest of the cases, investigations remain ongoing or no further information has been reported, and for the most part, the investigations in these cases have been ongoing for quite a long time.

View a spreadsheet of the data we collected. If you know of a restraint-related, in-custody death in the last three years, please contact me at brian@shadowproof.com.

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Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.